Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Digg DRM Controversy

If you read many of the posts on here you'll know that I am a farily avid reader. There was quite the fiasco at Digg this weekend as the site's maintainers tried to censor content, and in doing so created a huge controversy and caused the "digital Boston Tea Party". I thought I'd weigh in with some thoughts.

Just to be clear for those unfamiliar: is a user-generated content news site. What this means is that users (like you and me) post links to articles on the site, and then other users rate them (ie "digg" them up, or "bury" them down). The idea is then the really cool stuff ends up at the top of the most popular links list so you only get the good stuff, and the crap is filtered out by the users themselves.

What happened: A user posted a link to a site which revealed one of the secret decryption keys for the HD-DVD format of movie discs. What this meant is that anyone with this key could (in theory) decrypt the contents of a HD-DVD disc, and freely make copies of the disc. Fearing legal reprisal from groups like the MPAA due to violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the executives at Digg took down the article and posted a message explaining their reasons. What then happened was that Digg users flooded the site with links to stories containing the key essentially disabling the site. Digg executives conceded and a message from founder Kevin Cloud was posted stating:
"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."
So essentially they caved under the pressure of their users. Now the interesting question remains: was this a triumph of democracy, or another disaster for user-generated content sites (another event that many feel falls into this category is the legal battle between Viacom and Google/Youtube).

I wonder if this is a problem inherent in user-generated content sites. So long as there is no "peer-review" or committee that filters out content, sooner or later somebody will post something that will be in the interests of the worldwide community, but not in the interests of litigation-happy corporations interested in protecting their secrets. Digg might try the "but we have no control over it" defense, but that certainly didn't work for Napster, so one wonders if it would work for them.

It will be interesting to see the fallout from this event. Will Digg start censoring stories more often, or have they learned their lesson? Will users flock to other sites due to a lack of trust, or will Digg weather the storm? Will the MPAA and other groups with very deep pockets seek legal action against (the rather small) Digg?

Some interesting links to summaries:

Unhappy Digg users bury site in protest (CNET)

Digg's DRM Revolt (Forbes)

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