Geeks Gone Wild: Digg.com Faces User Revolt Over HD-DVD Crack

Yesterday, the computer geek world was abuzz with news that someone had managed to break the encryption code on the next-generation DVD system, HD-DVD.

The code was posted all over the internet (a Google search for "09 F9," the first four digits of the code turns up 62,000 results). One site it was posted on was digg.com, a popular and somewhat left-leaning news community. Digg, however, was contacted by Hollywood lawyers who warned them to delete the post or face legal action under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Digg deleted the post and in the process set off a firestorm of user protest within its community. Immediately, everyone started posting the code into non-related entries and denouncing Digg for being a censor. It got so bad that the site shut down entirely.

While this was going on, people were tracking the controversy and also posting the code around the internet. Finally, Digg reversed course and Kevin Rose, the founder of the site, posted the code on the company's blog with the following statement:

[T]oday was a difficult day for us. We had to decide whether to remove stories containing a single code based on a cease and desist declaration. We had to make a call, and in our desire to avoid a scenario where Digg would be interrupted or shut down, we decided to comply and remove the stories with the code.

But now, after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you’ve made it clear. You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be.

If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying.

That stopped the revolt in its tracks as the users began praising Digg and Rose for their courage. Digger "Codplay" spoke for many:

Actually, this whole thing gave me a lot of hope for our society. Sure it's a minor issue, but enough people felt strongly about it that they stood up and told everyone else why they thought the situation was wrong. As is just proof, enough people stood up that it made a difference.

Thanks to both sides. And now that we have proved that we are a strong community, let us get back to our other geeky stories...

Is that the lesson here? Partially.

What really happened is that Digg realized two things: media outlets can never do something that a majority (or even a vocal minority) opposes. That's relevant in the context here where we discuss the left's control of the media in this country.

Does it also prove that libertarian ideals cannot work in practice, as Bryan at Hot Air asks? Or does it prove that the liberal left cannot tolerate other people disagreeing with it?

Digg's reversal wasn't entirely in response to community demand, however. I'm not a lawyer but I believe that since the code was leaked out onto numerous web sites and that Digg wasn't the first site to have it, any kind of DMCA action against Digg will be doomed to fail. Therefore, Digg had nothing to lose by not caving to its community.

There's another lesson here, for the Hollywood community: it was only a matter of time before HD-DVD was cracked. Copyright protection methods are always doomed to fail, because there's always a better hacker out there, especially when you implement copyright protection schemes that infringe on fair use principles.

Update 15:00. Charles Johnson at LGF weighs in on the controversy:

I’ve had this discussion so many times with so many people that my eyes start to glaze over when it comes up.

You either respect the concept of intellectual property, or you don’t.

A whole lot of people don’t even know the concept exists.

Some of this is healthy; challenges lead to stronger systems. But the troubling part here is that, in way too many cases, the insistence on “fair use” is coupled with a thuggish and ignorant disregard for the intellectual property of the creators of the work.

I'm inclined to agree on the question of "should" people respect the law on this, however, if IP law (or more especially companies' content usage agreements) becomes overly restrictive, "should" becomes a moot point.

Everyone should have the right to make copies of their music, software and movies for personal use. It's the natural order of things, ever since humans began circulating information in written form.

Update 18:58. Gerard Van der Leun at Pajamas Media adds some interesting remarks:

Digg may indeed die from this decision since the large media companies like to make examples of people and companies that thwart their will — although it usually doesn’t involve companies that can ship bits by the tanker load like Digg and the online behemoth Google. Still, once the lawyers start their billing clocks the only limit is the depth of pockets on all sides of the argument. Digg seems to feel that it has to placate the users who “made it clear.”

But just who is the you that “has made it clear?” Charles Johnson calls it bowing to the mob, ” a virtual lynch mob,” and he has reason to know about the Digg mob. Allah at Hot Air pronounced it a riot as in “laff riot.” The action has created one of the largest Blogpiles even seen on Techmeme as hundreds of blogs weighed in. Other sites and voices call what happened “an example of 21st century digital revolt.” But is it?

Not at all. One of the constants of the Internet since the Stone Ages when hypertext standards were but a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee eye, is the conflict between the “Information wants to be free” crowd and the “Yes, but people need to get paid” set has been a staple on the Net. (Think “Discussions about what ‘fair use’ really means.”)

Both then and now the nature of the living Web is that everything scrolls off. Because of this, everything is repeated.

An Internet Stone Age parallel to today’s “sekrit” number kerfuffle was first seen on a massive scale in the “Scientology versus the Internet” Usenet wars of the early 1990s. In this long running flare up, the publication of “secret internal documents of the ‘Church’ of Scientology” were promulgated across the internet via the Usenet group alt.religion.scientology by one Dennis Erlich, a disaffected one-time high ranking member of Scientology.

Because the posting of these documents placed Scientology in an unfavorable light and revealed “trade secrets,” the group moved to expunge the both documents and the newsgroup. Scientology used a host of methods, legal and spam based, to try and stop these documents from being available at all. But the ubergeeks of the newsgroups answered them with mirror sites, document files held on servers in foreign countries, and a “make my day” attitude. The result was that many millions more people grabbed and read the documents exposing the “secrets” of Scientology than ever would have if Scientology has just let sleeping newsgroups be.

He's exactly right. I would add that it's not just the web that is this cyclical in nature. Politics is exactly the same way. So is business to a lesser extent. Hat tip: Instapundit.
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013