If you’re not familiar with Digg, it’s a site that works like this: people submit stories from around the web, and other Digg users vote on them. The more popular the story gets, the more prominent it gets. There are other similar sites, like Reddit, but Digg is among the most popular, able to drive vast amounts of traffic that often seems to overpower many sites. Getting dugg can be both a boon and a curse to a webmaster.
Yesterday, someone leaked the cryptographic code (a 32 digit hexadecimal number) that can be used to decode content on high definition HD-DVD discs, making it possible to essentially rip HD-DVDs, something which has long been possible with conventional DVDs. The story made it to Digg, where it was subsequently removed by the administrators at the behest of the HD-DVD advisory group, who considered the story to be infringing on their intellectual property rights (the HD-DVD people have also threatened legal action on other sites that contain the number).
Unfortunately, while this may have seemed like a logical step for the HD-DVD folks to take, it was also frankly, pretty darn stupid.
I’m sure Jason would have more to say on this from a geek culture standpoint, but from my experience, the kind of people who are interested in this information also tend to be the kind of people who will react quickly and vehemently to what they perceived as censorship. As a result, dozens upon dozens of stories containing the key have now popped up on Digg and elsewhere. Some users disguised the information as something else, for example, sneaking it into the Wikipedia page on the IPv6 protocol as a hexademical IP address. One person translated the hex values into colors; another user made an OS X screensaver that does nothing but display the code. Other stories were as simple as “I would like to share my favorite new numbers with everyone!” In short, that code is now everywhere (there’s even a screenshot on Flickr of the code in pretty much every single story on Digg’s front page).
The HD-DVD folks have run into a prime example of the hydratic equation (you may remember the story of the multi-headed Hydra from Greek mythology: every time Heracles cut off one of the heads, two more sprang up in its place). Not that there was necessarily anything that really could have done about it: once that code genie got out of the bottle, he wasn’t going back in. That inevitability points to one of the fundamental flaws of digital rights management, most systems of which tend to depend on “security through obscurity,” which is to say they rely upon keeping one crucial piece of information, like a password, secret. The problem is, if you keep information in an encrypted form, and somebody wants to watch it, it has to be decrypted. And that means they need that secret key to decrypt it. Sooner or later, the combined ingenuity of the world’s hackers ensures that that secret key will come out: it’s a system that’s doomed to failure.
So, how do you cover the ass of a system that’s doomed to failure? Legislate it, naturally. The passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it a crime to break the encryption schemes, even for totally innocuous acts like making a digital copy of your DVD for personal backup purposes.
There’s also a larger question here as to whether or not numbers can be considered intellectual property. Certainly a word or phrase can be trademarked or otherwise copyrighted, but can I type 909897234985792834759237495 and say that nobody else is allowed to use that number without my permission? If so, then I contend that something is very very wrong with our intellectual property system. Now, I would certainly be very very annoyed—and for good reason—if my password was suddenly on Digg, but I don’t think that I’d necessarily have grounds for legal action, especially of the intellectual property variety, merely because someone had plastered “pleistocene42” all over the Internet. And, of course, merely having the secret code doesn’t allow you to break the encryption; you still need a program to do it. I’m guessing that any attempt to use the DMCA to prosecute those spreading the code would be doomed to failure.
Back to the Digg administrators, who now find themselves between a rock (the HD-DVD group) and a hard place (their own users). If they censor the stories, as the HD-DVD forum has requested, they may be upholding their terms of service and covering their ass, as
co-founder CEO Jay Adelson stated in his blog post, but they also break their promise of a democratized system of information proliferation. While I don’t think this will kill Digg, I do think it will hurt them with many of their users. But Digg’s learning an important lesson here which the HD-DVD people would be well advised to heed: when you give the power to the people, sometimes they’re going to turn it right back on you.
Update: Digg founder Kevin Rose does the right thing (and frankly, the only thing he really could do if he wants to retain any sort of credibility), posting the number on the Digg blog, and telling Digg users “we hear you” and “If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying.” It’s currently the top story on Digg, with 15905 diggs.