What does cyber-revolt look like?

In the world of user-generated content (or crowdsourcing, if you will) today was historic. The storm clouds gathered this morning when I started receiving meta-content and flickr photos about what was brewing on Digg.com.

And then I saw the elements align perfectly for this disaster:

  • The issue: copyright of movies and video
  • The technology: encryption key of HD-DVD discovered
  • The community: digg.com users who posted the key
  • The conflict: “censorship” of the key by digg.com higher ups
  • The villain: the MPAA, RIAA and the Advanced Access Content System
  • The co-conspirator: digg.com

What happened was an all-out cyber-revolt, with the three most visible and popular usergen sites in the crosshairs — Digg.com, Slashdot and Wikipedia. It shows both the power and the danger of crowdsourcing, and the fickle balance between the mob and the operators.

How did it start? Users at Digg.com submitted stories related to the discovery of a key, a string of 16 bytes, that were related to the decryption of the new HD-DVD technology. It looks something, but not exactly, like the following:

09-f9-11-02-9d-74-e3-5b-d8-41-56-c5-63-56-88-c1

Digg was understandably concerned about violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which forbids circumvention technology. There are lots of critics about the breadth of this law, and its direct opposition to ‘free culture’, but until it is successfully challenged in court, it is pretty clear folks should take down information about circumvention (emphasis mine):

From U.S. Code TITLE 17 > CHAPTER 12 > § 1201

(2) No person shall manufacture, import, offer to the public, provide, or otherwise traffic in any technology, product, service, device, component, or part thereof, that—

(A) is primarily designed or produced for the purpose of circumventing a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title;

In a rare, but not unusual, move, Digg.com suppressed these user-created stories to prevent running afoul of the DMCA.

That did not sit well with the crowd, made up of young male techies with a penchant for net libertarianism, and some of them outright info-anarchists. Cries of “censorship” and being in bed with industry flew. It did not help that HD-DVD was a sponsor of the sister podcast Diggnation. Even more accusations erupted about a conspiracy.

It was as if you were at a Berkeley picnic and yelled “narc!”.

Diggers who felt slighted ran to shout the story from their virtual rooftops at sites like Slashdot and Wikipedia, the other cousins in the usergen family to make a spectacle and make a point.

Wikipedia articles such as [[HD-DVD]] and [[Digg]] were inundated with references to the verboten key. And just like Digg, Wikipedia administrators excised any mention of the key immediately, just as they do with copyright violations or libelous content.

With that avenue blocked, the protestors took a different tack — new articles cropped up in Wikipedia with the key, usernames were created with the key, categories were formed with the key.

As I was hanging out in the administrator’s IRC chat room, there were roughly a dozen or so admins fighting the attempts to add it. They deleted articles, blocked users, blocked IP numbers and “salted the ground” so certain articles could not be created. After an hour or so, they had it under control.

Unlike Digg, Wikipedia is accustomed to floods of malfeasance. It’s a top ten site, after all. Its caretakers have created the tools, policies and methods to deal with onslaughts like this. Social capital of the administrators played a big role in the end to encourage longstanding users to pitch in and delete references. Though Wikipedia didn’t exactly escape criticism.

“I should add that Google has 27,000 hits for this code. It is 100% encyclopedic. Shame on the admins here…” [ref]

Wikipedia locks out “the numbers”
wikipedia too! freedom of speech is dead. [ref]

Slashdot was a different story, and became a refuge for the disgruntled. The meta-moderated community has always been the more refined, thoughtful older brother in tech news. It was the first online Web salon of techies, with members so influential Wikipedia was for a time dubbed “the encyclopedia that Slashdot built.”

Slashdot carried an article about the entire case, and users posted open references to the string of bytes, even putting it as a tag along with the story for all to see. Slashdot let it stand, and found itself in good graces of the geek crowd. It was the beacon for net liberty.

Digg, however, was not so lucky. In the end, the latest darling of the dot-com world was at the mercy of its drive-by users. As a pure voting site, it does not have mechanisms to create sophisticated community norms, as user cooperation is determined only by individual up/down votes. So Digg’s paid staffers were on their own, trying to take the big hits and fending off the PR disaster. It did not go well.

The cybervillage suddenly had a mob with torches and pitchforks, and they were setting things ablaze in acts of cyber-wilding.

After a good six hours of this hammering on the site, Digg’s front page was changed to “We’ll be back shortly. Digg will be down for a brief period, while we make some changes.”

At around 9pm West coast time, Digg creator Kevin Rose made an astonishing post to the blog, with the taboo string as the subject.

Digg This: 09-f9-11-02-9d-74-e3-5b-d8-41-56-c5-63-56-88-c1

Today was an insane day. And as the founder of Digg, I just wanted to post my thoughts…

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.

Digg on,

Kevin

This is quite unprecedented — you basically have a multi-million dollar enterprise intimidated by its mob community into taking a stance that is rather clearly against the law.

It’s even more fascinating if you realize the amounts of money being considered. Business Week had a front cover story about Digg, where they said,

So far, Digg is breaking even on an estimated $3 million annually in revenues. Nonetheless, people in the know say Digg is easily worth $200 million.

This hundred million dollar company has decided to follow its crowd, and face the music (and movie industry). It shows that Web 2.0 has a dynamic very different from the original dot-com boom of the 1990s.

Of the free labor that is the “Digg Army,” 94% are male; more than half are IT types in their 20s and 30s making $75,000 or more. It’s a demographic advertisers lust after.

Yes, but these are certainly not just passive Maxim Magazine readers who just want cool gadgets. They are passionate, activist and resourceful. They will turn on you in a second if you look, sound or smell like a sellout.

In the movie Gladiator, the elder fighter Proximo said to the Russell Crow character, “I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you will win your freedom.”

For now, Kevin Rose seems to be betting the company on that advice.

15 thoughts on “What does cyber-revolt look like?

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  2. The coverage on Wikipedia-L is pretty fascinating, and you seem to have had a front row seat. Would be curious to read your summary of how Wikipedia responded to this issue.

  3. Pingback: Andrew Lih » Blog Archive » HD-DVD Key post mortem

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  6. digg doesn’t know what it stands for: to uphold the law or uphold its members. if it looks like a turn coat…

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