Digg's online crowd flexes its muscle
Backlash over the site administrators' attempt to squelch postings of a secret encryption code shows power of free-speech-minded Web users.
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Earlier this week a torrent of online activity brought the popular news aggregator Digg.com to its knees. Web users flooded the site with posts of a code that could crack the encryption on HD-DVDs, unlocking the high-definition movies to online piracy and potentially exposing Digg to legal troubles.
The site's users couldn't be prouder. And, in a way, this is what Digg is designed to do.
The website touts itself as a news service without editors – or, to look at it another way, millions of editors. The community of users compiles articles from across the Internet and votes on which ones deserve prominent placement on the site.
However, when Digg's administrators stepped in Tuesday and removed several posts containing that once-secret proprietary code, the community mutinied. The site's founders explained they were responding to cease-and-desist orders on behalf of the trade group that holds the rights to the HD-DVD code.
But Digg users countered each takedown by posting the code again and again, multiplying like the heads of a hydra, until articles, pictures, even song lyrics containing the 32-character data key swamped the site.
The crowd had spoken. And Digg submitted.
"We hear you," Digg cofounder Kevin Rose wrote on the site Tuesday evening, after receiving thousands of reader comments. "Effective immediately we won't delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be. If we lose ... at least we died trying."
(The takedown order sent to Digg and several other sites argues that the postings violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which outlaws the spread of information that can be used to break encryptions. Many legal scholars agree the law is fairly murky and untested.)
Living by the wisdom of the crowd is what made Digg popular, said CEO Jay Adelson in a telephone interview Wednesday.
"Digg is supposed to be the opposite of censorship," he said. "Our attorneys were advising us that it is always better to be safe than sorry and continue removing the stories. But the users clearly wanted it … and this was something we didn't want to suppress anymore."
What could have been an unraveling for Digg and other social websites – that peek behind the curtain to discover that the online community is not truly in control – turned into a solidifying event for the idea that the Internet is as much a tool for participating as it is for publishing. For many users, the code wasn't the point. The Digg deluge was about reclaiming the reins.
"This had the possibility of being a very dark moment, and it's turned out to be quite a strong statement about what it means to have socially driven websites," says John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. "It was civil disobedience on restriction of free speech – but in an Internet fashion."
Digg's mixture of news stories, blog entries, and democratic philosophy has been a winning formula for the San Francisco start-up. Last August, Business Week appraised the 18-month-old website at $60 million.
But the aggregator and similar social sites, such as YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace, do not really create anything themselves. They're just bulletin boards.