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Cancel.FQA (Frequently Questioned Answers)

Usenet is many things but it is also, and primarily, the biggest discusion group in the world. Individuals post messages, postings, which are collected together and relayed to anyone who might want to read them, and to reply in turn.

Usenet is important because it is a glorious exultation of freedom of speech. As with all freedoms, some will try to take matters to excess. On Usenet they often succeed. At that point, a mechanism has to be found to deal with such excesses. That mechanism (or one of them) is the Cancel.

The basic mechanisms may be well known to you, but if not, read on. First, this is very definitely not a technical description. I wish to do no more than is necessary to lead up to a discussion of the legal issues arising. It must also be noted that I am dealing only with the law of England and Wales, but this area is necessarily international.

A typical arrangement might be as follows. I log on to my ISP. My software downloads all the messages for a particular discussion group which are available from that news server at that time. At the same time new messages, postings, from me are uploaded from my computer and settled into the news database of that server. This happens for different usenet readers at the same time on many hundreds or indeed thousands of news servers across the world. Each receives new messages from its customers, and (typically) sends down new messages in return.

The same news-servers also talk to each other over a peering network. My local news-server will, in effect, log on to another news-server and swap new messages. It is almost the same conversation as I had with my own ISP. The conversation between them concludes with each machine in a condition where each then has itself full database of all messages possessed by the other. Thus my one new message is received locally, and, perhaps minutes later, transmitted first to one peered news-server, and then to another, and so on. Within a short time, my posting can have been passed on to many hundreds of other news-servers, and, within a day or so, it will have arrived at just about every news-server on internet which carries that newsgroup, and will be available for download from them by readers of that newsgroup from their local news-server. The network will have been 'flood-filled' with that posting.

It is a marvellously effective process, with beautifully simple logic. It is great fun, and those of a naturally disputatious disposition will quickly feel at home. It is also much more complicated than I have described.

  • Cancels

    In the midst of this glory is the simple fact that this freedom is abused. Some people issue postings which are, at best, inappropriate, and at worst fraudulent, abusive, and just plain criminal. Sometimes people just make a mistake. One of the mechanisms for controlling such posts, is a cancel. A cancel is a post just like any other, save only that it is interpreted by the news-administrators as an instruction to delete (in one way or another) another, an earlier posting.

    A cancel therefore is a posting sent from my machine which will hunt out an earlier posting of mine, and having found it on a newsserver, request that news server to remove or cancel the earlier post, and then to transmit on the cancel message instead. The cancel is therefore propagated just as the original message was. It flood fills the usenet space

    For real and technical information of cancelling see:-

    1. RFC1048 http: and
    2. the Cancel FAQ

      URL: URL: Note this article is based upon version 1.7 - the most recent one that I know of.

  • What is a third party cancel?

    The whole point about a cancel is that only I am allowed to cancel a post which I make. Every step taken away from this simplicity is a step toward chaos; a chaos in which free speech is subject to arbitrary interference by anybody willing to take the trouble to stop somebody else posting.

    A third party cancel, a cancel which is not issued by the originator of the message, is therefore something which is, in general, frowned upon.

    As always, there are exceptions. First, there are clearly some postings which ought to be stopped. The difficulty is that the postings I might wish to stop are not those which you might wish to stop. My house-cleaning is your censorship.

    One standard distinction is a rather odd one to outsiders. Some people consider that when a post is inimical to the net itself, then it can be and should be censored. When the post is merely bad by virtue of its content, the need for free speech should reign and the post should not be cancelled. Another internet received wisom, is that Iinternet perceives censorship as damage.

    In fact this reason is used as a reason/excuse for massive censorship. Posts which are considered to be spam are regularly cancelled by third parties. I can send one message to a thousand newsgroups, without saying anything. I can send it to twenty thousand newsgroups every hour, and fill the universe of the net, and still not say anything of value or significance. Posting on such a massive scale and without purpose is deemed to be an attack on the Internet itself. By filling the electronic space available, the Internet is unable to carry traffic of greater value.

    To see the Spam FAQ look at The article attempts to define what constitutes spam.

    The system of cancelling spams has therefore become almost a major industry, and millions of posts are cancelled in this way every day, by software designed to hunt it down, and kill it.

    There is another class of posting where it is arguable that there a right to issue a third party cancel. B posts regularly to Usenet. B takes a dislike of A, and attacks him. He does not however issue any straight challenge, he rather issues one or more posts which are designed to mimic A, and in doing so, and by virtue of the content of the posts, to draw ridicule and contempt onto A. He pretends that he is A. He forges a postings as if it came from A.

  • What is a forgery?

    A forgery in the normal and wide sense is a something which pretends to be something other than it is. In the Usenet sense, a forgery is taken to be an article where the From: line in the header ( a section of the posting which operates as mixture of addrees, letter head and record of the path taken by the posting) is not that of the actual sender of the article, but rather of somebody else. This is a rather tight definition, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient. It is convenient. It looks as if the problem has been dealt with.

  • When is a forgery not a forgery? < ol>
  • Such an article might for example make it quite clear elsewhere in the body of the post just who the true author is. The author may, for example, be properly borrowing somebody else's news machine. The 'From:' line will be that of the owner of the machine, but his posting is not and does not appear to be from the machine owner. He may easily be unaware of, or unable to change the From: line.
  • More interestingly, the apparent forgery might be a pastiche - an intellectual joke, where the impersonation of the owner of the from line is intended to be discovered, but only perhaps after the reader is initially fooled. An equivalent might be creating a painting with the skill and style of say Van Gogh, but the signature, when checked, makes the true author clear. In this situation, is there really a forgery? Clearly if one holds that it might be, then there may also be a hundred minor variations on this them requiring and generating differing answers. Whatever the case, it is clear that the issue of what is actually a forgery is far from simple.
  • The RFC allows a name and an e-mail address. If a chap uses my e-mail address, but his name, (or vice-versa) is it a forgery?
  • Somebody may be 'cyber-squatting' on what I consider properly to be my name. If someone else uses the same name, is it a forgery? I am not a big company, and I consider the best approach to be to issues posts in my name - even if it is has somebody else's actual e-mail address.
  • What duties does a news-administrator have?

    In general, I do not pretend that responsibility is clear. Much of what is said here is tentative. I know that some of it upsets some news-administrators. I can only say that these things need to be discussed, and that I am ready to listen and be perusaded.

  • Contract

    Clearly, the News-administrator will usually have contractual responsibilities. These may be with his employers, his peers, and often also with his news-users. The postion of news-administrator is exceptionally varied. He might control the interface between two networks or work for an ISP. Even within a family or small company, all news may be received by one person, and then forwarded to others, collecting theirs in return for onward posting. If this is an automatic or semi-automatic process, is he not a news-administrator?

    If a news-administrator administers the news in his possession under a contract, he may be liable under that contract. If he decides, for example to refuse to pass forward messages to or from any individual, he may be liable in contract for that refusal.

  • Torts
    1. Negligence

      Does a news-administrator accept any liability in negligence? Clearly, people may be affected by his actions. A person may, foolishly no doubt, make an announcement over Usenet. A news-administrator sufficiently close may well, by his negligence (and people do find so many many ways of being negligent), affect others.

      The liability may appear thin, but occasionally it may be real. There seems no reason in principal why a news-administrator acting upon a cancel may not be negligent.

    2. Defamation

      It is quite clear that a news-administrator who otherwise fulfils the conditions may be liable in defamation as the law stands. Whether the law is correct or not is another matter, but the reality is clear. He publishes matter. He creates a situation, provides facilities for, the creation of many new copies of postings.

      Say a NA receives a cancel of a defamatory posting. The author thinks better of his posting, and immediately issues a cancel. He subscribes however to an ISP who refuse to act on cancels, and continues to broadcast the posting the author seeks to cancel. Should not that ISP have clear liability?

  • Statute
    1. Data Protection Acts 1984 and 1998
    2. Computer Misuse Act 1990

      This is perhaps the most interesting question. T

    3. European Convention on Human Rights
      Article 8 note 1 gives a private individual the right to respect for his correspondence.
      1. What is respect? Respect is difficult to define
      2. Is a Usenet posting correspondence? I have no doubt but that it is correspondence. It is closest to a conversation reduced to, or carried out by means of, the writing of letters.
        Usenet is sometimes compared to a bulletin board. This simile gets across one idea, that anyone can put up a message, and that everyone can read it, but beyond that, the simile begins to break down. On a bulletin board, we manage usually to put up an advert. At most, someone will put something on a bulletin board, and a passer by will, perhaps, draw something obscene on it (perhaps it isn't that different!).
        On Usenet, rather an additional mechanism is involved. It is as if the owner of the bulletin board left a free photocopier below the board, and invited passers by, not merely to inspect teh board, but also themselves to make copies of what was on the board, and to take those copies away.
      3. But it isn't private.
  • Criminal liability -
    1. for pornography
    2. indecent images of children
    3. for text likely to inflame racial hatred
    4. Breaches of Telecommunicatiosn Act 1984 s34
  • Examples
    1. 1999 A moderator of a news-group withdrew a series of postings about a particular product, only to be accused of being part of a conspiracy
    2. 1999 A young chap has been accused of breaching the Telecommunications Act 1984 s34 by the issuing of a series of postings to Usenet. The case has not, so far as I know, yet been decided.
  • Important: Please note that our law-bytes are retained for archival purposes only. The law changes, and these notes are often, now, out of date. You must take direct advice on your own personal situation and the law as it currently stands.
    All information on this site is in general and summary form only. The content of any page on this site may be out of date and or incomplete, and you should not not rely directly upon it. Take direct professional legal advice which reflects your own particular situation.
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    18 October 2013 35 18 October 2013