news National broadband provider Internode has internally flagged plans to “quietly” shut down the Premium Usenet newsgroup server it has offered to customers for some years as a free value-add to their existing broadband plans.
Popular in the 1980’s and 90’s, Usenet is a distributed Internet discussion platform which still sees a substantial amount of traffic today. The system allows users to host discussions and publish files and is accessed by users through localised mirrors, typically provided by ISPs or web hosting companies. It has also emerged as a major rival to file sharing services such as BitTorrent.
In an internal email to Internode employees in July last year sighted by Delimiter this week, Internode managing director Simon Hackett noted that the company had operated a Usenet service for some years to customers (believed to be through a partnership with Astraweb). The service had been popular with many advanced broadband users and was free of charge to Internode customers. However, wrote Hackett in his email to staff, Internode was in the process of “retiring” the Usenet service. “At some (as yet undecided) point in the future, we expect to shut the service down completely,” he wrote.
At the time, Hackett made it clear to Internode staff that the change was to occur “quietly”, without making a public fuss of the issue. Initially, all references to the Usenet service would be “removed” from the Internode website — including configuration details for the platform. The change did not go unnoticed, with a number of Internode customers protesting against the change on broadband forum Whirlpool at the time, and noting that the availability of the service was one of the main reasons they chose Internode as their broadband supplier.
At the time, despite Hackett’s pronouncement internally that the service was to be retired, Internode representative on Whirlpool Michael Kratz posted a number of responses to customers stating that no decision had yet been made as to its future. “We’re currently re-evaluating whether we retire or modify this service in the future,” he said. “No decision has yet been made regarding the timing of any changes to this service for existing customers.”
Kratz’s statements on Whirlpool are consistent with the messaging which Hackett told Internode staff they should use, when responding to customer enquiries on the matter. “There is no official reason to be provided — it’s just a decision we’ve taken,” he wrote in his email. “For existing customers, the answer is: ‘Premium USENet continues to be provided to existing customers at this time, however Internode may retire or modify this service in the future. No decision has yet been made regarding the timing of any changes to this service for existing customers.'”
“For newly enquiring customers who may say ‘Where did the Premium Usenet feature go?”, the answer is: ‘Internode is no longer offering Premium USENet as a selling feature of our services for new customers. It might work for you, but its continued operation for signups after 5th July 2011 is not guaranteed’. In both cases, try to resist embellishing those responses because that may lead to misinterpretations of them. When we have more news (cough) on this topic, we’ll provide it.”
Hackett pointed out that Internode wasn’t the only Usenet provider around, with commercial providers of such services easily available online for a fee. “It’s ok to point out that there are other ways to locate and (pay to) use this service should customers wish to use those alternative ways in the future and they can type ‘Premium Usenet’ into Google for plenty of places to go,” he wrote in his email to staff. “Internode is not ‘blocking’ anything here. We’re just gearing up to stop paying the bills on behalf of those of our customers who want to use this service.”
It’s not the first time Internode has been concerned about the financial viability of its Usenet service. In May 2007, the company temporarily shut down the service only a year after it first launched, citing the fact that only a small proportion of customers used the service. However, it was quickly reinstated, following customer complaints. Internode executives were emailed with a request to comment on this issue on Saturday afternoon but have not yet responded. Internode’s Premium Usenet service appears to still be active at the moment.
Internode is completely within its rights to shut down the Premium Usenet service, and this makes business sense. I’m sure maintaining the service is costing the company a pretty penny, and Hackett’s right — commercial services are already available if customers want to access this kind of service.
However, the way the company has communicated its decision to customers has been disingenuous. In public, Kratz was saying on Whirlpool that no decision had yet been made to definitely shut down the service, while privately, Hackett was telling staff that a decision had been made. There is a conscious approach of telling customers one thing and staff another.
It’s not at all unusual for this sort of behaviour to take place — I’ve seen similar examples of misleading statements from virtually every major company I’ve covered in Australia over the past decade. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s right. Once a decision has been made on an issue affecting customers, that decision should be communicated quickly. Why not just tell customers that the cost of operating the Usenet server wasn’t worth the return? Customers can understand financial decisions like that. There’s no need for all this cloak and dagger stuff.