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