DejaNews considered harmful

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On Usenet it's fairly customary to hark back to the Good Old Days. Back before 80% of the bandwidth on the main backbone was consumed by spams and spam-cancels, back before everyone and their dog (however hare-brained and functionally illiterate) were swarming over everything - before AOL and CompuSwerve had Usenet gateways, for that matter. Back when the worst thing we had to worry about was the September influx of naive sophomores, at least one of whom could be guaranteed to post a MAKE MONEY FAST pyramid scam by hand to about three newsgroups before they got their account yanked.

Well, I won't deny that in the case of Usenet the good old days really were better than the current situation. And hopefully, if it takes off, Usenet 2 will go some way towards fixing the problem. But I wish today to warn of a deeper and potentially deadlier parasite that afflicts our favourite discussion system: DejaNews and friends.

Usenet is, and always was, a conferencing system. As such, it suffered from rolling amnesia - anything discussed more than two weeks ago was lost in the cloudbanks of an uncertain past. There was a certain comfort to this, even if it induced a certain soporific monotony; while answers to questions were rendered obscure, and the same standard flame wars were resurrected in life eternal, we were also mercifully able to leave the worst of it behind. Only a few newsgroups were archived, and the archives were mostly known about only by people smart enough to read the FAQ.

All this changed in 1995, when DejaNews rudely interrupted the amnesic fogbank with a glaring transmission of daylight - and a TV camera. DejaNews indiscriminately archives trivia and bile along with every insight and smile; it is a veritable vacuum cleaner, slurping up anything posted on Usenet that isn't tagged with the appropriate (and relatively arcane) exclusion information.

On one level, this might seem to be welcome. People bereft of a news server can take part in discussions by way of And in the more serious newsgroups, it is always possible to retreive a lost gem, a snippet of source code, a recipe for rarebit.

But this facile friendly face is misleading. Behind it lurks a different one; the omniscient surveillance society, the panopticon of the net, Jeremy Bentham's visionary design for a new model prison. Never mind the disquieting accounts of employers scanning DejaNews for prospective (or actual) employee's extramural newsgroup activity. What we have here is a more sinister capability: the monitoring of an entire population, the citizens of the internet at large. Not to mention copyright violation on an epic scale, although that's another matter.

True, if you don't want your postings to be archived, you can always put an X-no-archive: yes line in your header. If, that is, your newsreader permits custom headers - and if, that is, the kind folks at DejaNews don't really store posts with that tag in their database. (I think it far more likely that everything is archived, and the normal filters the public have access to merely exclude any search hits containing the tag.)

But that isn't the point. Nobody asked me if I wanted to opt in. I didn't know about DejaNews until it had been running for some months, silently copying my works and storing them without my permission. DejaNews, while indisputably useful in the technical discussions of the comp.* or sci.* hierarchies, exerts a chilling effect on the activities of the rest of Usenet - the more casual anarchism of alt.* or rec.*, let alone talk.*. Your every posting, from now on, unless you specifically request that it be left unarchived, will be taken down and may be held against you by anyone with access to a web browser.

When I first posted the rant above, Kenn Barry<> commented that he was surprised that anyone could expect privacy on Usenet.

This forced me to look a bit closer at my own concerns with DejaNews and similar archiving systems. I concluded that it wasn't simply an invasion of privacy; something much more insidious is represented by the existence of such archives.

Privacy implies that access to personal information is restricted. What worries me is not the defeated expectation of privacy, but the inverse of privacy - a surveillance society in which you can't get away from anything you said years ago. And I believe this is what DejaNews implies.

Employers sometimes monitor Usenet, reading their employees' postings. But that's beside the point: you can deal with a specific individual if you think they may be monitoring you. But DejaNews represents a qualitatively different type of surveillance from simple news grepping, the practice of keeping tabs on someone by watching what they say as they say it.

DejaNews will probably survive (as a database, if not a company) into the next century. There will be social changes, some of them good and some of them bad. Things which are not currently considered bad will become sins, and vice versa. For all I know, by 2010 there will be a climate of kindness towards child molesters but anyone who has ever confessed to liking industrial music will be on their way to the camps we don't speak about. In which case, I stand condemned by DejaNews - and not because I said anything remotely questionable in today's climate.

A surveillance society is a bad, nasty thing to live in. But it can be a thousand times worse if it acquires the ability to efficiently monitor all our public utterances for the past few decades, looking for current crimes of impropriety - if for no other reason than to serve as justification for search warrants and retroactive attempts to edit history.

(As an aside: the most pernicious sin of political correctness - however defined - is the Whiggish attempt to evaluate past circumstances and actions in contemporary terms. This now appears to be extending into the domain of law, with worrying implications; first doctrines of extraterritoriality, next punishment for crimes committed before they were illegal.)

Surveillance societies are insidious. I was in an electronic components store the other weekend, and happened to pass a display of small video cameras intended for CCTV monitoring. Now I had known in an abstract way that you can put a CCD camera on a chip; and indeed, here there were preposterously tiny cameras, cameras the size of coins with lenses half a centimetre deep. But what shook me was the camouflaged cameras for office monitoring. One was disguised as a battery-powered wall clock; the camera was concealed behind a pinhole below the number six, a pinhole that looked like a simple screw-hole. The other was a smoke detector - and I never managed to figure out where the camera was hidden.

If items like these are acceptable in offices, as tools for bosses to use to snoop on their employees, what on earth is considered acceptable by government or police agencies? And where are we going - how long is it going to be before we all have, pointed at each other, information resources that would have given J. Edgard Hoover a hard-on? And what, then, will we do with them?

Usenet, as a discussion system, is not meant to be a permanent medium of record; it's a chat-room system. Ephemeral. The problem with DejaNews is not merely that it makes Usenet more concrete than it used to be - the problem is that it is delivering hostages to future fortune in a way that was simply not possible before. It is a central, rapidly searchable, repository of virtually all of Usenet - something that didn't exist earlier. And DejaNews is like a police spy sitting in every public space, listening in on every conversation, and taking notes.

The fundamental basis of a civilized society is that it provides some common, flexible, ground rules that let large numbers of people live together without slitting each other's throats. One of the common rules is that as long as you're not breaking the law you should be free to live your life as you wish, without interference. And as a corollary of this, all civilized societies provide safety valves; a decent and sensitive blindness, a certain slipperiness of the gears, so that individual citizens are not held to account for everything they do, however trivial, if it does not impact their fellow citizens in some significant way.

However, we're living in a time of rapid change, social and economic, and surveillance is increasingly seen as a value-neutral technological fix, not a deeply oppressive social trend. Witness the ability of the FBI to press for all encryption software to have background hooks to allow law enforcement officers to see what's going on ... an unnacceptable state of affairs, morally no different from requiring all locks to have keys lodged with the police!

We also have the spectre of changing values. Look at the muddy-minded panics of the lawmakers today, as witness their attempts to punish the tobacco companies for things they did fifty years ago. Now look at DejaNews and consider, where your utterances of today will put you fifty years from now.

This is what worries me: not the words I'm willing to stand behind today, but the context in which they may be interpreted tomorrow, by parties unknown. DejaNews is delivering a potent tool into the hands of tomorrow's vengeful and intolerant moral crusaders by taking the equivalent of casual chat and turning it into a medium of record, where unwary speech may reap grim future rewards.

It panders to the secret policeman in all of us.

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