Back in 1984, at the first Hacker's conference, Internet guru Stewart Brand coined the phrase "Information wants to be free." At the time, Brand was talking about how the Internet dramatically reduces the cost of distributing information (to the point where it's essentially free), but the phrase also captured the sense that the Internet makes it particularly difficult to control the spread of information.
That simple but profound truth is at the heart of why the immensely popular and user-driven Web site Digg.com has been in the headlines over the past 48 hours.
A few days ago, Digg received a cease-and-desist letter instructing the site to remove all posts that contained a key capable of cracking the Advanced Access Content System (AACS), a technology used to regulate consumer access to content on Blu-Ray and HD DVD movie media. The AACS hack has been available on the Web for months, but suddenly began appearing on the Digg site this week.
In a post to the official Digg blog, CEO Jay Adelson said that the site has an obligation to comply with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which requires online service providers to remove access to copyrighted material once they've been notified of infringement on their site.
"We've been notified by the owners of this intellectual property that they believe the posting of the encryption key infringes their intellectual property rights," Adelson wrote. "In order to respect these rights and to comply with the law, we have removed postings of the key that have been brought to our attention."
Digg.com's Uprising 2.0
The decision by Digg's management to comply with the cease-and-desist letter outraged Digg's users, who began flooding the site with posts featuring the key. Other users "dug" those posts, helping to promote their popularity. In a fairly short time, the entire front page of Digg consisted of posts relating to the banned information.
One user calculated that by 8:17 p.m. on Tuesday evening, over 50,000 "diggs" had been given to AACS hack posts, and 45,000 of those diggs were on the front page alone. Not surprisingly, the intense user interest and activity caused the Digg servers to crash several times during the evening.
Just 45 minutes later, at 9:00 p.m., Digg threw in the towel and announced that it would no longer try to censor the posts relating to the AACS hack. In a Digg blog post entitled "Digg This: 09-f9-11-02-9d-74-e3-5b-d8-41-56-c5-63-56-88-c0," Digg founder Kevin Rose said that it had been a difficult day for the company.
"We had to make a call," Rose wrote, "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."
Digg Goes Down Fighting?
"But now," Rose went on, "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."
As both Rose and Adelson are no doubt aware, a preview of what the consequences might be can be found in the Viacom v. Google/YouTube lawsuit. The DMCA does not contain any user-outrage exception to its copyright protections, and it is unlikely that the owner of AACS, the AACS Licensing Administrator, will stop its efforts to put the genie back in the bottle.
What remains to be seen is whether enormously popular sites like Digg and YouTube can shield themselves with a "good faith" effort to protect copyrighted material. Or will the popularity of the sites themselves bring about changes in how copyrights are handled? There are signs that the music industry is slowly, grudgingly adapting its business models to the Internet's emerging Web 2.0 sensibilities, but whether other industries follow suit remains to be seen.