Online Rebellion: The Digg Community Revolts Against Censorship

Something monumental happened yesterday and unfortunately, short of those who read tech news sites, it will probably be overlooked by most people. The Digg community revolted, taking over the site in order to espouse a specific protest agenda, and succeeded in subverting the corporate censorship machinery. This event was monumental because it represents a type of alter-corporate protest which has, until now, only been seen in grassroots protest movements such as the now-infamous Seattle WTO protest. We now understand the true power of online social networking in the context of Web 2.0.

Let me bring you up to speed with a brief summary of how the events unfolded. The digital rights management scheme embedded into HD-DVD and Blu-ray is called AACS. It was designed to provide considerably more protection than what is currently available in regular DVDs -- the theory being that copyrights will be more stringently enforced. There are, however, a number of problems with this scheme. First of all, it requires that consumers wishing to view content use certain types of connections to their display. It also disallows consumers who have legitimately purchased the media to make a legally-allowed backup copy, or to transfer it to another medium for personal viewing. Most tech geeks are generally against digital rights management because of past fiascos (the Sony rootkit situation comes to mind), as well as the resistance to being dictated what one can do with media they have legally purchased. It is generally argued that pirates will pirate no matter what, and digital rights management therefore hurts legitimate consumers more than anyone.

Recently, there was a minor exploit of the AACS system, but it was client-side and so it was quickly patched. However, a hacker who was dismayed that he couldn't play his purchased content because he didn't have the type of connection required for the protection scheme to work recently found the hex encryption key (09-f9-11-02-9d-74-e3-5b-d8-41-56-c5-63-56-88-c0) for HD-DVDs (it is different for Blu-ray), essentially shattering the copy protection scheme and allowing any disc to be viewed on any display, and also allowing the discs to be copied. The key was not made publically available, but a lawyer for the AACS accidentally leaked out the key in a legal document.

Here's where it gets interesting. Digg, a democratic social networking news site where users votes determine what stories are pushed to the front page, had a highly-rated article on their front page which contained the encryption key. The AACS was not happy about this, and issued a cease-and-desist letter to Digg. They complied, not having the money or resources to fight a lawsuit, and not only deleted the article, but also banned the user who posted it. A story was then published which talked about the censorship of this article by the Digg moderators, and it too was deleted and the user banned.

The community protested this heavy-handed approach which they felt undermined Digg's credibility. People began to urge that users digg stories which contained the encryption key. Last night, every single story on the front page of Digg contained the key, a reference to the ongoing protest, or to the state of the Digg community because of this event. Popular news sites such as Slashdot quickly caught on to the story and reported on what was going on at Digg. The BBC and other popular "traditional" news outlets had a front-page story this morning about the situation.

Kevin Rose, the founder of Digg, made a post on his blog explaining why they had initially deleted the posts with the encryption key. He now told the community that they had spoken, and they had been heard. Should Digg go down in an intense legal battle, "so be it", but he would be proud that they went down fighting for what was important. He vowed that stories containing the key would not be deleted, and he urged the community to "digg on".

Consumers' criticisms of copy protection schemes, and the legal tactics used to protect the protection schemes, finally boiled over and exploded in this beautiful demonstration of discontent. This is grassroots protest at its finest and most powerful. We have never witnessed this on such a scale in the online realm before. May 1st was a defining moment for the Internet as a social networking tool, and it should without a doubt go down in the history books. I have never been so proud to stand up for freedom of speech and consumer rights.


At 8/5/07 2:26 AM, Anonymous aintnogod said...

Look. I'm 69 years into this world, and I know you've heard this before. But here goes. I made a lifelong attempt to sell novels and make a living at it. I failed to become the great American novelist though I often published poetry in literary magazines around the country. Some of my novels took over a year of my life to create, eight hours a day, six or seven days a week. I just don't understand why anyone would think they had a right to steal one of my books for free IF, of course, one of them had made it to market. and they didn't. Do you give away your labor or do you get a wage? If you will work for free, then I'll support your right to steal the work of creative people. If you expect to get paid, then you should also honor that expectation in creative people.

At 8/5/07 3:31 PM, Blogger Portelance said...

It is not that I don't respect copyrights, but rather that copyrights are supposed to be a balance between consumer and producer rights. AACS is a system which allows the consumer to little more than lease the material which they have purchased. It puts all the power in the hands of the media conglomerates, who are free to revoke your leasing rights at any moment. They also wish to dictate what software and operating system you can use to view the content you have purchases, what formats you can view the content in, what devices you must use, etc.

As a consumer, I have extremely limited rights to the content I have legally purchased when it is protected with schemes like AACS.

As a final comment, I would simply like to point to statistics which have shown that the age groups who tend to pirate the most movies, music, etc. are also the largest consumers of it. One also wonders whether piracy would decline if they made the content more accessible and in a variety of different formats as opposed to locking you in to mediums which are more or less antiquated (ie. I buy CDs but immediately rip them to a different format because CDs are impractical). I will not buy media from places like the iTunes Music Store because it locks me in to certain devices that can play it. I would like to use the content I have purchased in any way I deem appropriate.

Make no mistake -- DRM schemes end up hurting legitimate consumers more than they do pirates. As history demonstrates, pirates will always find a way to get around a copy-protection scheme no matter what. It is legitimate users who are hurt by the restrictions content-owners put on the content they purchase (eg. I always find it funny that I have to sit through an anti-piracy commercial at the movie theater when I have just paid $10 to see the movie in question).


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