Crash! HD-DVD censorship diggs grave for news site

Digg crashes after users -- and HD-DVD aficionados -- revolt

Popular news aggregation site, Digg.com has crashed after it opened up a Pandora's box of internet fury when it decided to censor users rather than face legal action from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for publishing a hacked key code for HD-DVD movies.

Users are directed to an error screen that says: "We'll be back shortly. Digg will be down for a brief period, while we make some changes."

The action comes after Digg decided to obey a Cease and Desist order issued by the MPAA for publishing a sixteen hexadecimal key that unlocks the protection mechanisms used to prevent free copying of HD-DVD and Blu-Ray movies. But when the site started censoring posts and users for disobeying Digg's stance on the matter, the popular news aggregation site got to feel the true force of social networking at its most fervent when its users launched a mass online revolt.

The trouble began brewing six weeks ago when a hacker by the name of Arnezami, posted the HD-DVD Processing Key on the doom9 forums, encouraging others to spread the word. As the code made its way around the Internet, the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) consortium, the body responsible for protecting HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs from illegal copying, caught wind of the postings and decided to take action in an unprecedented campaign of censorship.

Since mid April, the MPAA and AACS, through its lawyers, have been serving DMCA takedown notices to sites that have published the code. Cory Doctorow who teaches a University of Southern California undergrad class called Pwned: Everyone on Campus is a Copyright Criminal, was one of the first to be served and censored the content on advice from his lawyers. Shortly after the same code was posted to Wikipedia but was just as quickly removed and locked from reposting. Since then, blogs and even Google has been ordered to stop publishing or linking to the key.

But despite the MPAA's censorship crusade, most of these happenings flew quietly under the radar, and the MPAA's actions may have remained that way had the code not made its way to Digg.

Yesterday, a Digg user by the name of 'chesterjosiah' posted the key to the site where it amassed more than 15,500 Diggs, becoming one of the sites most popular stories ever. However, just 24 hours after appearing, it disappeared without a trace. In response, a number of users posted stories to notify the rest of the Digg community to the apparent censorship.

Then today, in a posting on Digg titled What's Happening with HD-DVD Stories?, Digg CEO Jay Adelson, explained why stories containing the offending digits have slowly been disappearing without warning.

"I just wanted to explain what some of you have been noticing around some stories that have been submitted to Digg on the HD-DVD encryption key being cracked.

"This has all come up in the past 24 hours, mostly connected to the HD-DVD hack that has been circulating online, having been posted to Digg as well as numerous other popular news and information websites. 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. 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.

"Our goal is always to maintain a purely democratic system for the submission and sharing of information - and we want Digg to continue to be a great resource for finding the best content. However, in order for that to happen, we all need to work together to protect Digg from exposure to lawsuits that could very quickly shut us down."

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HD-DVD revolt

Although Adelson's response was aimed to diffuse the dissatisfied Digg users who felt they were unfairly censored, it only further enraged them and has now exploded into a full-fledged Digg revolt.

Since his posting, the situation has major scene of discontent, with thousands of Digg users thumbing their virtual noses at Digg and the actions of the MPAA by posting the key into the comments sections, Digging any stories that contain the key and even coming up with creative ways to bypass action.

Some particularly creative methods for getting around deletions include:

  • Posting the processing key as an apparent WPA key in an act of Wifi sharing kindness
  • Creating screensavers consisting of nothing but the falling 16 hexadecimal digits
  • Making a riddle whose answers are each of the 16 digits
  • Selling T-shirts, Coffee mugs and bumper stickers containing the code

The result of this fallout has turned the processing key into the Hydra of the internet. For every site that removes references to the key, it seems two more pop up in its place. Even Google has been unable to stop the flood of pages being created. A simple Google query for the 16 hexadecimal code comes up with almost 300,000 search results.

Despite the processing key's widespread publication, the actual effect it will have on the high-definition movie industry will remain marginal as it only affects particular players and only then if a user has the proper programming expertise.

Digg founders relent

By late Tuesday night, Digg founder Kevin Rose had relented under pressure from the users. In a blog post, he noted that after reading thousands of reader comments, the will of the community was clear to Digg.

"You'd rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company," he wrote. "We hear you, and effective immediately we won't delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences will be. If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying."

The revolt marks a test case for social networking sites that accept user-generated content, said Dianne Lynch, dean of the communications school at Ithaca College. Lynch, who also writes regularly about Web 2.0 issues such as alternate worlds, noted that she couldn't access Digg Tuesday night because of the high traffic.

"The situation tests the validity and integrity of a social communities," she said. "The social community won."

Although Digg "saved itself" from by returning control to the community, refusing to do so could have had "serious" implications for the site, she said.

"If you're going to turn [the site] over to the community, you can't decide to change your mind without having serious implications," Lynch said. "User-generated content means that users will make a collective decision about is and isn't appropriate. As soon as you establish a user-generated site, you by definition give up the right to say, 'No' [to publishing content]."

If sites do began to edit content on such sites, "you have undermined or devalued the whole mission or purpose of that kind of exchange," she said.

Michael Arrington, who writes about Web 2.0 companies in his blog TechCrunch.com, wrote that calling the response by Digg users a revolt "is an understatement."

Until Tuesday, he wrote, "even Digg didn't fully understand the power of the community to determine what is 'news.' The users had taken control of the site, and unless Digg went into wholesale deletion mode and suspended a large portion of their users, there was absolutely nothing they could do about it."

(Additional reporting by Heather Havenstein)