The Usenet group
comp.lang.tcl vanished from Google Groups for several hours before being restored on Tuesday.
The reason, according to Arjen Markus, an engineer based in the Netherlands and Tcl programmer, is that a spammer posted abusive content to the group.
“We have seen a single obnoxious poster who posts long Italian posts ranting about murderers and other criminals,” said Markus in a Hacker News post. “The posts are easily recognized because they are all in capitals with very long titles. As a group we have reported these postings as abuse and then they get hidden from the ordinary overview. For this sanitary action we seem to have been punished.”
The group for a time displayed the following notice:
Google Groups users subsequently posted support requests asking for
comp.lang.tcl to be reinstated to Google Groups.
As of about 10:22 PDT, access was restored.
The support moderator responding to the complaints about the takedown said that there’s no way to prevent a Usenet newsgroup from being banned or unbanned because the group has no owner.
Google did not immediately respond to a request to explain what happened, though it has been a longstanding problem that Google’s response to unlawful or problematic content has been to remove entire discussion groups rather than individual posts.
The Usenet group’s fortuitously brief exclusion from Google Groups is the latest in a series of content takedowns affecting historic Usenet newsgroups both related to programming and otherwise.
Usenet deja vu
Google took over the Usenet archive when it acquired Deja News in 2001.
Almost a year ago,
comp.lang.lisp, were also removed from Google Groups. And they remain unavailable. Likewise,
comp.lang.python are currently inaccessible via Google Groups.
The suppression of Usenet groups has cultural, academic, and technical consequences. Some active systems, for example, still rely on Forth.
There are options, however, to find content banished from Google Groups. NNTP (Network News Transfer Protocol) client software may provide access denied by the Google Groups web interface (corporate firewall permitting). As an alternative, other copies of these discussions, some of which date back to the early 1980s, have been saved to the Giganews Usenet Collection and to the Usenet Historical Collection at the Internet Archives.
“This is a historical group with Usenet messages going back to the 90’s,” wrote an individual identified as Chris Barbarello in a Google Groups support request last month. “Right now I can’t view any of them because Groups is throwing a ‘banned content’ warning. What can I do to view the historical posts? There has to be a way to salvage the historical data for viewing.”
Presently, that way routes around Google Groups. And perhaps it’s not too much to hope that Google might one day find a way to target troublesome content with more precision. ®