The practices and perils of digital democracy

1789, BITCHES!“The time to stop a revolution is at the beginning, not the end.”
Adlai E. Stevenson

Ol’ Adlai wasn’t talking about digital democracy, but he might well have been, especially given the craziness that took place yesterday involving Digg.com and the HD-DVD decryption key.

In case you missed the madness, let me give you the recap. Digg.com is one of the most popular social bookmarking sites on the web, allowing readers to submit articles and links to a database of news stories and “digg” (recommend) the articles. The website charts the number of diggs that each story gets, so it’s a great way to get a sense of what’s hot on the Internet at any given time.

At some point earlier this week, people began to Digg an article that revealed the decryption key for HD-DVD, one of the two next-generation DVD formats that are competing to be the successor to traditional DVD. This code basically allows people who know what they’re doing to violate the discs’ digital rights management and make illegal copies.

The Advanced Access Content System license consortium – the folks who control the security system – saw the article on the front page of the Digg website. Now, had they understood the way that a website like Digg works, they probably would have contacted the website where the article was actually hosted. But no, they contacted Digg with cease and desist letters urging them to remove the story from their website. Citing their own terms of use that seek to avoid infringing on intellectual property, the folks at Digg complied and took down the stories that featured the encryption key (and banned the user who posted the story as well).

And then all hell broke lose.

Outraged that Digg would attempt to censor the free spreading of information, readers began posting story after story, blog post after blog post that featured the sequence of 32 numbers and letters. People were posting the sequence everywhere they could on the internet, from message boards to comments on random blogs (even some of my favourite music ones). There was a song written with the sequence that was submitted to YouTube. There were hundreds, HUNDREDS of submissions that Digg’s people had to delete, so many that they simply couldn’t keep up with it anymore.

Which is when Kevin Rose, founder of Digg, posted this to the website’s blog:

In building and shaping the site I’ve always tried to stay as hands on as possible. We’ve always given site moderation (digging/burying) power to the community. Occasionally we step in to remove stories that violate our terms of use (eg. linking to pornography, illegal downloads, racial hate sites, etc.). So today 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.

I’m not sure whether or not the AACS is going to sue Digg or not, but this represents one of the more visceral examples of communication in the twenty-first century. Everyone knows that internet speed makes putting the cover back on the Pandora’s Box nearly impossible. But what “HD-DVD night” proves is that traditional attempts to do so – like, say, legal action – can actually make things infinitely worse.

In this case, those 32 numbers and letters have become a symbol of the struggle of digital democracy against top-down management. In trying to take a heavy-handed approach to dealing with the leak of their code – which, let’s face it, was going to happen eventually – the AACS ended up doing infinitely more harm to their intellectual property than had they just sat back and done nothing.

But it wasn’t just the AACS that learned a lesson; the Digg folks did too. They learned that social media lives and dies with its users, and that when push comes to shove it’s the users that call the shots. Here was a case where, by the letter of the law, the users were entirely in the wrong. But this is the generation of anarchist media consumption, where record labels and electronics companies that try and prevent pirating by protecting their media are seen as the enemy of free information. By choosing to “give in” to the AACS, Digg created a riot amongst its users that forced their inevitable submission.

Welcome to digital democracy, folks, for better or for worse. Viva la revolution?

Watch: Digg Users Revolt (YouTube video recap)

Edit: You can also read about the whole situation over at the New York Times.

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6 responses to “The practices and perils of digital democracy

  1. Pingback:   …in which McNutt Diggs into the practices and perils of digital … by Social Bookmark Submission Service·

  2. Really great post – excellent summary.

    It certainly is a very interesting time. In today’s dynamic world, legislation cannot keep pace with technology so I wonder whether this is innevitable.

  3. Pingback: Digg vs. digital decmocracy « Technobabble 2.0·

  4. In regards to Jonny’s question of inevitability, I would think that it truly is. With stuff like this, it is impossible for anyone to expect this code not to leak out; however, it is also clear that when this code leaks out, a majority of the people in charge of responding to it are absolutely ignorant to the way things work. They’re living in a world where shutting down piracy is a simple task of cutting off a single source, and failing to realize how physically impossible that is.

    While I think that lessons were learned on both sides, I think the more important lesson is simply that people can’t ignore the power of the internet. They can’t claim it has no power, no purpose, after an incident like this. They need to learn to stop fighting it, and instead embrace it in some form.

  5. I have seen some other interesting comments following this. What seems interesting is that when you have a site that is made for communities, they end up being governed by them. Any attempt to change that will result in a very quick exit from all the users

  6. Dammit, I haven’t been to Digg since school ended and I no longer needed a way to procrastinate. I missed all the action. Hell of a story.

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