[Return to Cyberspace Law Syllabus]
TO: Alice
FROM: Cyberspace class
DATE: September 13, 1999
RE: Small Stuff, Inc.

In preparation for your telephone call with Small Stuff's General Counsel, we have described the following topics in this memo: (a) what "Usenet" is, (b) what the "Usenet Death Penalty" is, and (c) whether there will be any interference with Small Stuff's website if this death penalty is imposed on Small Stuff's Internet Service Provider, SmallNet.

Usenet is the generic name for a system of servers whose only job is to temporarily archive a massive collection of text messages posted on numerous Usenet servers mirrored all over the Internet. Predating the web, Usenet began in 1979 in order to facilitate public communication among Internet users. To that end, it consists of newsgroups ("groups") with names that are categorized hierarchically by topic. People who participate in these groups download messages or articles relevant to the group's topic, and upload messages in response. All uploads and downloads to a Usenet server are negotiated by a Usenet client application which connects to the server via the Internet. Any Internet connection will do, through the user's Internet Service Provider ("ISP"), such as America Online, or a direct Internet connection, such as through an office network. Usenet participants may have their own stand-alone client application, or they may go to a website (e.g., http://www.deja.com) which then connects to a news server and presents the user with the information right in the browser window.
The "Usenet Death Penalty" (UDP) is a procedure by which site administrators cancel messages posted to Usenet by an ISP's users. The ISPs participating in the UDP impose this penalty when a user from a particular ISP floods Usenet with "spam," unsolicited articles or advertisements that are posted to Usenet. Large quantities of spam on Usenet news servers may not only purge legitimate messages before they reach the interested members but can disable other ISPs by flooding the bandwidth (the amount of information an ISP can transmit at one time) and disk storage space with unwanted information. Thus, if an offending ISP site administrator refuses to control the production of spam by one or more of its users, a group of other ISP site administrators may issue advisory net-abuse cancellations, essentially a warning of possible infliction of the UDP. Following the announcement of the UDP, the offending ISP has five business days to decrease its spam before the UDP takes effect. If the ISP cooperates, the site administrators of the other ISPs will not impose the penalty. If the ISP does not decrease its spam, every message from the ISP is refused admission to the Usenet, regardless of whether or not it is spam. The site administrators will disable the UDP when the ISP discontinues the offending activity.

If SmallNet, our client's ISP, becomes subject to a UDP, the consequences for Small Stuff would likely be minimal. The UDP would not prevent customers from visiting Small Stuff's website. It also would not prevent Small Stuff from selling its products through e-commerce. The only restriction a UDP would impose upon Small Stuff is the inability of Small Stuff and other users on SmallNet to post to Usenet groups through SmallNet. The ISPs joining in the UDP would cancel all Usenet postings, including both spam and legitimate messages to Usenet, from SmallNet's members. Therefore, any business opportunity Small Stuff might generate from posting advertisements to Usenet groups would be eliminated if the UDP were to be imposed upon SmallNet.

[Return to Cyberspace Law Syllabus]