Electronic Civil Disobedience
People are calling the Digg user revolt the “Internet story of the year.” The Digg community fixated on the 32-bit encryption key for HD-DVDs protests against the site owners giving in to potential censorship requests by HD-DVD producers (who are also advertisers on the site) and censoring stories that published the key. You can read more coverage (and screenshots) at Mathew Ingram, Deep Jive Interests or TechCrunch. I first heard the story break at Paris Lemon. WinExtra might have the best post about this.
(photo by misterbisson)
It’s no real surprise that it happened. The geeky communities behind sites like Slashdot and BoingBoing have always been anti-censorship, anti-copyright protection and pro-digital rights. The idea of copyrighting and preventing publishing of something as simple and common as a 32-digit hexadecimal number is ludicrous. I’m surprised no one has scanned their hard drives and built up a list of programs where the number naturally occurs.
I don’t think this is the Internet story of the year, but it is an important lesson in communities and in listening to what they want (and in being careful how you build your community). Anyone who has seen a Digg comment thread in action knows that anarchy rules and this kind of chaotic behaviour is to be expected. Where other sites go for public moderation, Digg has always waved the banner of “the users create the site”, despite the reality of censorship (user banning, anti-digg story burying) happening in the background.
Will spreading the 32-bit encryption key for HD-DVD lead to more HD-DVD piracy? Not at all. It is an act of electronic civil disobedience and an easy one to make. The issue isn’t as severe as civil rights, or international warfare but it is civil disobedience nonetheless: willfully disobeying laws we don’t believe in. I’ve supported measures in the past like Grey Tuesday that spread Danger Mouse’s  The Grey Album, one of my favorite albums, that was banned because it remixes samples of the Beatles .
Digital copyright continues to be a hot topic as computer processing power, digital storage and networking bandwidth are always increasing, making it easier and easier to digitize and copy any media online. Music, movies, tv shows, books and comic books can all be found online. Software protocols like Bittorrent almost guarantee that you can get a popular album or movie in near or less time then it takes to walk to the store.
Where things get sticky is trying to reach an understanding between content producers and content consumers. Content producers (I speak as one) have to realize that like any job or industry there is no guarantee that a market will exist and that the work you are passionate about will be profitable even though it has historically been in the past. Part of putting your work out there is not being able to completely control all of the ways people interact with it . Content consumers have to realize that if the great content isn’t financially viable then it won’t be created.
Laws are an agreed upon social covenant (or at least they should be in any democratic society). When the majority of the people in a country casually download copyrighted media and break copy-protection measures it is time to revisit the social covenant. If a significant majority of people break the law then it is the law that is wrong, not the people. That is something Digg’s founder Kevin Rose just realized.
Unfortunately armchair (or keyboard) activism is easy to do, easy to forget, and brings little lasting change into the world.
- Digital Copright Projection Guarantees that the Library of Alexandria Will Burn
- Project Cleanfeed Canada — Canada’s Censorship Project
- The controversy of the Grey Album (and the quality of the album) catapulted Danger Mouse to projects like Gnarls Barkley.
- You can download the Grey Album at bannedmusic.org
- The only way to completely control content is to never publicize it. If it is in the public then there will be unauthorized and unintended uses, and that is something content producers have to learn to accept, or at least find an acceptable balance between creating content and squashing unintended uses.