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.

Score one for mob rule.

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.

"Without users, there's very little there," says Mary Madden, a senior researcher for the Pew Internet & American Life Project in Washington. "The successful sites are those that can foster a lot of good communication and, sometimes, forgiveness."

Last month 16.5 million people visited Digg. And where there's buzz, advertisers follow. But when the business model relies on users bringing the content with them, keeping a sense of authenticity is key.

Last year, several users posited conspiracy theories on how certain stories made it to the top of the site. Although the allegations of a hidden hand orchestrating rankings were never proven, many Digg users threatened to leave.

"I still read the site every day, but I post much fewer stories and make fewer comments," says Chad Udell, a web developer in Morton, Ill. "For these people-driven sites, if I feel like I don't have an equal voice, then why bother?" [Editor's note: The original version misattributed the quote.]

Other successful social sites have hit similar power struggles. In September, the popular college networking site Facebook.com thought they would further connect users by rolling out a "news feed" feature that would update everyone on nearly every change occurring on friends' profiles, right down to who rejected whose party invitation. This perceived invasion of privacy launched boycotts and rumors of a National Don't Log Into Facebook Day. Site administrators changed the feature after only two days.

The HD-DVD key was not the first story Digg administrators yanked. They regularly pull down links to pornography and hate speech, says Mr. Adelson. But with more than 7,000 articles submitted to Digg every day, he acknowledges the process is very reactive. Digg's most relied-on filter is its users – for sniffing out both the good and the bad.

Digg's crowd is a tech-savvy set, so when the movie-code posting sneaked past administrators, the readers dug it. Before anyone at the Digg office noticed that the story had slipped through the cracks, 15,000 users had recommended it – making its sudden disappearance all the more noticeable, Adelson says.

But the backlash that followed was not a fight for potentially illegal access codes, says Digg user Thomas Black.

"Right now hundreds of thousands of people have the code, but barely anyone knows how to use it," says the IT specialist from Trenton, N.J. "If you are skilled enough to use the code, you probably would have found it elsewhere." The key has been floating around online message boards for months.

In fact, if the censored story were about something other than Digg's forte – technology – JupiterResearch media analyst Barry Parr wonders if the initial push to censor the piece would have caused a fuss.

Adelson stresses that this acquiescence on the HD-DVD code does not mark an end to Digg oversight. Nor should it, says Mr. Parr.

"These social sites can be like a bar," he says. "A lot of raucous behavior can go on – that's part of the fun. But if things get out of control, you need to have bouncer. It just makes sense to protect yourself from liability."

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