Fire from the madding crowd

To paraphrase what has long been said about the Net, when roused to indignation, the Digg nation sees censorship as damage and routes around it. And in the case at hand, the Digger Rebellion that rose up in the past couple of days highlights the larger issue facing sites based on user participation and content generation: What happens when users go wild?

The brouhaha began with yet another skirmish between the institutions interested in keeping the new high-definition DVDs from being copied and the forces that keep cracking the encryption schemes, putatively to allow the discs to be backed up or played on Linux machines. A recent crack, made public a few months ago, took the form of a string of numbers, a 16-byte cryptographic key that can unlock most existing discs. The Advanced Access Content System License Administrator, keeper of the keys, had already responded to the crack, and the crackers had already countered, but no matter. When a post containing the key showed up on Digg this week, the AACS LA told the site admins to take down the links because they infringed on its intellectual property. Digg, not wanting to get entangled in a lawsuit, complied. And then all hell broke loose.

As word of the takedown spread, Digg users flooded the site with posts containing the key and voted them up to the top of the content heap. At first, the administrators tried to keep up, knocking off post after post, but it was a losing battle. By last night, they gave up — or more accurately, they decided to side with the masses.

In a post, founder Kevin Rose published the key himself and explained: “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.”

The upshot for Digg is that it needs to gird itself for court action (Mashable’s Pete Cashmore is already suggesting the zillions of Digg users kick in a couple bucks each for a defense fund). But beyond that is a quandry for all the social sites considered part of Web 2.0. As Ed Felten writes at Freedom to Tinker: “Digg’s motive here probably has more to do with profit and market share than with truth, justice, and the American way. It’s not a coincidence that Digg’s newly discovered values coincide with the desires of its users. Still, the important fact is that users could bend Digg to their will. It turns out that the ‘government’ of Digg’s community gets its power from the consent of the governed. Users of other Web 2.0 sites will surely take note.”


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  • anon

    Does anyone have the recipe for Arizona Apricot Cream Sauce? I would like to use it in my Honestly Delicious Decidedly Vitalizing Dinner collection. I think it might help out my friend, who is feeling rather blue. Ray is his name.

  • Jeff Crigler

    Call me a traditionalist, but I believe in user participation, not user control. I’ve chimed in in more details on my blog at the news2020project dot com.

    Jeff Crigler