What Is Usenet and How Does It Work? [Simplified]

Keelan Balderson
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Updated · Feb 07, 2023

Keelan Balderson
Journalist | Joined October 2021

A qualified journalist and longtime web content writer, Keelan has a passion for exploring informati... | See full bio


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Have you ever wondered what is Usenet? Are you asking yourself what are newsgroups? You’ve come to the right place. Our guide spells out what the platform is and how it works. Plus, the Usenet community’s approach to privacy and your own commonly asked questions. 

What Is Usenet?

This relatively obscure aspect of the internet actually predates the traditional World Wide Web that most people are familiar with. It’s an entirely different type of communication platform that has similarities to discussion groups and discussion forums. It, however, requires a separate Usenet service provider on top of any regular Internet Service Providers. You also need software, commonly called a newsreader or news client to log on and gain access to Usenet newsgroups. You can’t browse to an Usenet newsgroup using web browsers like Chrome or Edge. 

There are some regular sites like Usenet Bin that act as an Usenet indexer (directory) or others like an Usenet search engine. These are informational, though, unless they connect to the Usenet protocol as well. To gain proper access, you'll have to subscribe to an Usenet service.

Usenet protocol and its Newsgroups are not really news services. The system was tailored more to what you might call news in the beginning as it grew out of university computer communication systems in 1979. Users could message and update each other. For a time, this could be very formal and academic, but it soon became similar to a modern internet forum and remains as such.

In many ways, Usenet was a competitor to the internet and web we know today. I.e. The Betamax to the VHS player. There’s no denying that the Web and now social networks like Facebook and Twitter have won the war with the masses. There still remains a loyal user base for Usenet services, however. Honestly, they provide some great benefits.

The first is fast access to Usenet binaries (files) – a type of file sharing that you’d never find cleanly on the regular web outside of shady peer-to-peer programs like UTorrent. Usenet also includes text-based groups going back many years that you can just read or post on, depending on the activity of the group.

One key benefit is Usenet’s obscurity, fairly steep learning curve, and its community focused on anonymity. This makes it a private alternative to the heavily controlled but publicly wide-open big media web we deal with today. Although it’s not as anonymous as TOR and the dark web, Usenet providers now embrace VPNs, secure SSL encryption, and payment via cryptocurrencies.

That doesn’t mean every Usenet server is a den of copyrighted material and illegal content. Many Usenet service providers have strict privacy policies and will adhere to takedown notices.

What Is a Newsgroup?

So, what are Newsgroups? 

Let’s put it this way:

Usenet is the protocol – the form of internet or Web that a Newsgroup runs on. Newsgroups are the individual sites/groups or forums where the content is published. 

There are several types of newsgroups, some dating back decades. It is generally accepted that there are about 110,000 active and complete groups you can browse using your newsreader or news client. You can also download files, read posts, and even share new content. Sometimes a provider will promote their ‘completion rates’ - the percentage of full files available.

Typically, binary Usenet groups focus on files. You’d use an Usenet binary search function via your software to find the files you want. The ‘newsreaders’ will let you search the type of file and name and return multiple results. You can then save the files to your computer similar to a download manager.

Newsgroup providers also give access to specific newsgroups. This often via browser-style software so you can read text-based posts or chat with other users, like a more traditional experience. Binaries can be found within these groups, but that’s not necessarily the focus.

Because text requires fewer resources in the form of download data and connection speed, some Usenet service providers can keep archives going back as far as 17 years. 

Downloading large files (binaries) using your news client is a lot more intensive and thus the archive or retention can be lower. Most of the best Usenet provider options keep copies of files on their news server farms for as long as 12 years. If your main aim for using Usenet is downloading, uploading, or sharing files, you’ll probably want long binary retention rates and easy access to binary newsgroups.

While they are not the same, Google Groups is often compared to Usenet.

How Does Usenet Work?

Still wondering how to access Usenet?

We’ve got ya.

Here’s how to use Usenet: 

It is almost like its own form of internet. It works by subscribing to Usenet providers, much like you would ISPs. Most of these providers have their own dedicated Usenet servers where they keep copies of what can be found on newsgroups. They offer access to them in a traditional manner.

At one time, ISPs offered Usenet as an add-on, but that has been dropped in favor of third-party providers. They keep things running via their own servers, even if the original servers have gone offline.

But how to search newsgroups? 

Because you cannot access newsgroups via a web browser, your chosen Usenet service can bundle the appropriate software. Or, at the very least, give you all the server details and protocols to set things up with one of the many Usenet free programs out there. Such clients are available on nearly any operating system, including Microsoft Windows, Mac, Linux, and now even mobile devices. You may get 7SSL information, port numbers, the Network News Transfer Protocol, and other technical details. While this may sound overwhelming for newcomers, any provider worth its salt has a simple set-by-step guide on how to set things up and will even recommend certain software. 

Depending on the software, you may get an all-in-one solution that: 

  • indexes newsgroups 
  • allows newsgroup search facilities 
  • lets you view content 
  • download files 
  • interact with other users. 

Usenet service providers will either charge you monthly, give you a discount for a longer upfront commitment, or offer blocks of data that you can use up in your own time. You may get uncapped speeds and download data on some or all plans. This may also form part of the pricing model. It’s a good idea to shop around to find a service that will suit your own habits and budget. Because of the traffic involved, finding an Usenet server free of charge is not common. 

On the other hand, free newsgroups are a given. You do not have to pay extra to access the vast majority of those still available. As noted, it’s rare, but occasionally you may even come across a free Usenet provider. It might be a temporary special offer, part of another paid service, or for a very scaled back and potentially slow experience. 

Usenet works the best when you use a paid service that has a large network of servers, with some at least in the United States and Europe. Furthermore, the more simultaneous connections they provide, the more stable your experience and the more you can do at once without any major slowdowns. 

Is Usenet Safe?

Since it’s quite obscure, many people ponder the question: is Usenet safe? The short answer is, yes, it’s as safe as any other form of the internet. 

It can have its share of rotten users, spam, malicious files, phishing links, etc. If you’re well versed in the traditional web, however, there’s nothing more dangerous about Usenet. Plus, many providers are good at filtering out unsafe content and corrupted files. 

In fact, in many ways, Usenet is safer than the web because it’s used by fewer people, emphasizes privacy, and many providers believe in protecting your data. This will be written into their policies, along with clauses about not monitoring your browsing habits. Some will not even store any personal details and will accept payment via anonymous cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.  

You will also find a general consensus to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) while using Usenet. You may get a VPN service bundled with your Usenet service provider or can set one up separately that works on Usenet and the regular web. This prevents your ISP, Usenet provider, and any websites from monitoring where your traffic came from. It is also a good way of getting around geo-restricted web content because you can spoof your traffic as coming from anywhere in the world. 

Usenet is also safe because of the way it distributes its data. There’s no P2P. A file is broken down into multiple pieces and then sent to a decentralized network of servers which you connect to securely via SSL encryption. Once you’ve brought this disparate data together, your download is complete. In 99% of cases, none of this is tracked.

The only time we would be wary is if you stumble across a free Usenet server, especially if there is little known about them online. On the other hand, some free newsgroup servers are available where they began. At Universities to share information and foster free speech. 

Should I Use a VPN With Usenet?

It is not necessary to use a VPN when on Usenet. Furthermore, in some cases, a poor VPN can actually slow down your experience. If you are concerned about privacy and your browsing and download habits being tracked, however, it’s a good idea. Many Usenet services have their own VPN or are partnered with popular third-party services and will give you access as part of your Usenet plan.

We feel if the VPN comes as part of the package and it works fast, there’s no harm in using it. Since Usenet is encrypted and you can find privacy-conscious providers, however, it is not a necessary component. 

VPNs are more effective at protecting your privacy when using the regular web or protecting your network at the router level. 

Wrap Up

Now that we discussed what is Usenet and what are newsgroups, you can continue your Usenet journey with the next step. Find the best Usenet service for you and get browsing!


What is Usenet used for?

The honest answer is that it’s most commonly used for private file sharing – downloading files like music and films quickly and securely. This is a safe alternative to the spammy regular web or platforms like BitTorrent. Usenet is also great for browsing old text posts from over a decade ago or chatting with other users as you might on a regular forum. There is a particular charm to Usenet, especially for those that used it during the early years, or the 90s resurgence. 

What is Usenet and how does it work?

The backbone of the Usenet platform is its newsgroups.   How to use newsgroups is the next obvious question.  You’ll need a paid subscription to a Usenet provider who typically stores copies of Usenet content through a data center of servers. It’s rare to find good working free newsgroup providers. However, most will give you a newsgroup free trial. Or, more aptly, a free trial of their Usenet service. This lets you test things out and see if everything is to your liking before parting with any cash. Then using special software, you can search across newsgroups for files or browse individual newsgroups themselves. It all works on its own secure protocols away from the web and traditional web browsers. 

Is Usenet legal?

To answer this, we must first discuss what is Usenet. It is a distributed discussion system. As such, it is 100% legal. There is nothing wrong or untoward about subscribing to a reputable provider. Of course, just like the regular web, file-sharing programs, and the dark web, illegal activities can be carried out. But that’s a reflection of a user’s actions, not Usenet itself.  We do not endorse the downloading of copyrighted material via Usenet in jurisdictions where it is illegal.


Keelan Balderson

Keelan Balderson

A qualified journalist and longtime web content writer, Keelan has a passion for exploring information and learning new things. If he's not writing or pushing his own brands, you'll find him watching pro wrestling or trying not to rant about politics online.

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