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posted by janrinok on Monday March 12 2018, @03:05PM   Printer-friendly
from the full-of-300bps-goodness dept.

Professor Steve Bellovin at the computer science department at Columbia University in New York City writes in his blog about early design decisions for Usenet. In particular he addresses authentication and the factors taken into consideration given the technology available at the time. After considering the infeasiblity of many options at the time, they ultimately threw up their hands.

That left us with no good choices. The infrastructure for a cryptographic solution was lacking. The uux command rendered illusory any attempts at security via the Usenet programs themselves. We chose to do nothing. That is, we did not implement fake security that would give people the illusion of protection but not the reality.

For those unfamiliar with it, Usenet is a text-based, worldwide, decentralized, distributed discussion system. Basically it can be likened to a bulletin board system of sorts. Servers operate peer to peer while users connect to their preferred server using a regular client-server model. It was a key source of work-related discussion, as well as entertainment and regular news. Being uncensorable, it was a key source of news during several major political crises around the world during the 1980s and early 1990s. Being uncensorable, it has gained the ire of both large businesses and powerful politicians. It used to be an integral part of any ISP's offerings even 15 years ago. Lack of authentication has been both a strength and a weakness. Professor Bellovin sheds some light on how it came to be like that.

Despite weaknesses, Usenet gave rise to among many other things the now defunct Clarinet news, which is regarded to be the first exclusively online business.


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  • (Score: 4, Interesting) by canopic jug on Monday March 12 2018, @04:53PM

    by canopic jug (3949) Subscriber Badge on Monday March 12 2018, @04:53PM (#651419) Journal

    One project, the late Internet Public Library, was so flooded with AOLers that for a while they had a great big notice on their main page warning people that they had left AOL and reached the Internet.

    That was a really cool project while it lasted. It was around for about 10 years, then changed hosting institutions, got infected with javascript and lingered in decreasing activity for another 10. It was based on the idea that the Internet at the time was a community and that if libraries are customized to support a community, what would a public library for the Interet look like. It went mostly web-only but for a long while even had a MOO [archive.org] of its own.

    There were a lot of Usenet groups where questions were posted and answered, too, before that. There was always a propagation delay as posts spread around so it was not uncommon to see the answer a day or more before the question, if the question came from topologically far away. That was exploited by an infamous prank where one person asked what time it was and got a flurry of answers followed by an extended period of embarrassed silence.

    I gather now that walled gardens like Faecebook and the others spread by oral tradition instead of written guides. It seems to carry a lot of disinformation and wishful thinking with it. I once printed out terms of service for a few of the walled gardens and discussed them with some young people, and also some middle agers, who were / are heavy users of said walled gardens. Even after seeing the terms in black and white, they were unwilling to accept them and reiterated the myths they and their friends tell each other, asserting that the printed terms were somehow incorrect. Middle aged people dig in even harder.

    Mastodon had some potential for carrying on from Usenet, but there are some shortcomings that make echo chambers and censorship prevalent. It also lacked the topic hierarchies and threaded discussions.

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