Unlike AOL, The Well, or HotWired's Threads, Usenet is a free-for-all. This gargantuan messaging system doesn't have an officially sanctioned authority that monitors the articles posted on it. As a result, Usenet's newsgroups have become dumping grounds for off-topic advertising, large binary files posted in nonbinary newsgroups, and messages that have been scattershot to hundreds of different newsgroups or posted repeatedly to the same newsgroup.
Fortunately, a cadre of Usenet regulars has volunteered for litter duty. Armed with homemade software called "cancelbots," they scour Usenet, eliminating the spam, spew (a single message posted many times to a single newsgroup), crossposts, off-topic binaries, forgeries, and unauthorized copyrighted material posted daily to thousands of newsgroups. The members of this cleanup crew are known as ...
Altruistic bandwidth conservers or self-righteous Net censors?
Turf: The news.admin.net-abuse* hierarchy
Tools & Weapons:
Cancelbots, NoCeM, Dave the Resurrector, Lazarus, Purge-binaries, Adcomplain
Jargon: Retromoderation (canceling off-topic messages in a newsgroup after they have been posted), Usenet Death Penalty (automatic cancelation of every message issued from a site; used against recalcitrant Net abusers), ECP (excessive cross-posting (the same message posted to many newsgroups simultaneously)
Enemies: Spam Kings, Freedom Knights, rogue cancelers (people who cancel posts based on content)
Quote: "I am under no illusions that what I am doing is pure unilateral vigilantism - The Cancelmoose (retired canceler)"
Field Notes: The most important rule for a Canceler is "Never cancel a message based on its content. These rogue spammers face the wrath of the Net-abuse community.
Cancelbots are programs that look for messages matching specified search terms and effectively erase them from Usenet servers. It is up to a site administrator to honor "cancel" messages, though most do. A well-known administrator and ideological enemy of the cancelers, Dave Hayes, runs a site that ignores cancels and prevents them from being propagated through the Internet. He offers tools to prevent and recover from cancels on his Freedom Knights homepage.
Richard E. Depew is regarded as Usenet's major bincanceler, removing binary files from nonbinary newsgroups. (A victim of his cancelbot once asked him: "Who do you think you are, God?" Depew replied: "No. God works in mysterious ways. I follow established protocols.")
Cancelmoose is one of the first cancelers, and is now retired. He is the author of an alternative to cancels, the NoCeM.
Is Net abuse easier to deal with now than before?
Depew: The job of issuing cancels and reports has remained easy - it is automated. The job of dealing with the resulting email has gotten easier in recent months as more people recognize a need for dealing with misplaced binaries or other forms of inappropriate postings. The volume of cancels has gone up, but the workload has not.
Cancelmoose: When I started issuing cancels, I called them an emergency measure, until there was something better - that something is NoCeM, and since I released it I haven't canceled spam - just NoCeM'ed it.
How do you respond to people who say that third-party cancels should never be allowed under any circumstances, and that people should use killfiles instead?
Depew: I suggest they set up their own news servers and give it a try. However, they will still benefit from "herd immunity" as other sites continue to honor cancels.
Cancelmoose: The spammers are going to extreme lengths to avoid detection - the header forgeries usually circumvent the killfile. Also, you have to see the spam once to killfile it.
Have you ever given anyone else a copy of your cancelbot? (The Cancel FAQ says "Giving out a cancelbot is like handing out loaded guns with no safeties.") If so, how well do you have to know them?
Depew: I have given a small number of people a copy of one of my cancelbots. In most cases these were people who had written their own cancelbot and wanted to compare it with mine. All are news administrators who participate in the news.admin* newsgroups. This is the only way I know them. I did ask each to promise to use it responsibly and to not pass it on. None have disappointed me.
Cancelmoose: I agree with a statement I've seen posted that one should never use a cancelbot they haven't written. One "oops" can cause a *lot* of damage, and blaming it on someone else's bug or misunderstanding a man page is not acceptable. You write it, you run it, and you take responsibility for what it does.
What do you see as a long-term solution to Net abuse?
Depew: Net abuse, like evil, will always be with us. The best we can expect to do is minimize the damage that Net abuse can cause. The most hopeful long-term solution is the education of users, Internet service providers, and network service providers to detect and respond appropriately to network abuse. Wired can perform an invaluable service in this area by following this effort.
Cancelmoose: Authenticated out-of-band meta-information exchange. That is, projects like NoCeM that use the power of Usenet's all-inclusive population, coupled with a mask to increase the signal-to-noise ratio. Steps are already being taken to use crypto to secure some control messages.
Have you ever had a mishap with your cancelbot?
Depew: Oh, we all make mistakes, and I've made more than my share. Here is a recent one: Someone binary-bombed one of the Net-abuse newsgroups and one of the binary files was large enough to trigger my bincancel-bot. It canceled that particular article and sent a report, as usual, to the addresses listed in the From: and Reply-To: headers. Unfortunately, these didn't contain the address of the poster, but of about 20 victims. These were mostly people who have been active in fighting Net abuse for some time. A few of these were highly amused by my cover letter (which is written so it can be understood by most Usenet "newbies"), while a few others were not pleased that my bot was taken in by this simple trick. It won't be fooled a second time by that trick!