Andrew Chadwick writes on his blog about the recent DIGG rebellion which has stunned many observers:
“An amazing day over at the popular news rating site Digg. In response to participants posting the DRM keys for HD-DVD (recently made widely available on the Internet by hackers), and fellow users ‘digging’ these, the team behind the site started deleting the posts and suspending user accounts. They did this due to a ‘take down’ notice issued by what the Digg blog refers to as ‘the owners of this intellectual property’. This is a body known as the AACS licensing authority. There then ensued a huge increase in the number of postings of the encryption key, and the number of diggs quickly spiralled out of control, reaching more than 50,000 as of this posting. When the company’s founder, Kevin Rose, realised that it was going to prove impossible to delete the posts and suspend even more accounts, essentially destroying the essence of Digg itself, he threw in the towel, and probably settled in for a meeting with the company lawyers“.
As I had a chance to comment on Andrew’s blog, this story fascinates me on two levels. First, it clearly shows the potential of Web 2.0’s collective power, an embodiment of the visionary predictions of Kevin Kelly in Out of Control. I was just as amazed when I came across the story by Evgeny Morozov on how blogs are becoming the new frontier of human rights, which I wrote about a couple of days ago. The idea that anonymous bloggers could act more swiftly and effectively than Amnesty could ever do is both exciting and intriguing. Ethan Zuckerman – of My Heart’s in Accra… – has a really interesting post on the subject and on how cyber-activists have been eluding censorship over the last few years using imaginative tricks.
But second, it echoes a recent article in the FT by James Harkin (reproduced here) on the not-so-pleasant implications of the bee-hive mentality. Harkin misses most of the points of what Web 2.0 is, and seems to care more about the well-being of Murdock and his media empire than about the long-term implications of this structural transformation of the web. Still, he raises important questions about the essence of internet-mobilisaiton and information use in general. Those who took part in this DIGG rebellion were not – after all – really aiming to save political activists from prison, but to get their hands on a Hex code used on all HD DVDs for decoding. As Sean on Life points out,
“With the key (and some friendly open source utilities) you can create copied of HD DVDs. This is a pretty big deal as it permits piracy of a format that is supposed to be secure“.
It’s not that I feel sorry for the companies who produce DVDs, but the implications of this event are twofold. First, if when the bee-hive is angry, it has no qualms about breaking regulations, are crowds in the future going to decide what is right and what is wrong, basing their decision on petty economic interests? What does this mean for market regulations? And for redistributive policies? Second: if someone is made to pay for this, it will be DIGG, who might be forced to shut down, just like Napster before it. But every time one site like this gets closed down, 10 spring up from its ashes. What happens when internet regulators decide that the best way to avoid similar attacks on property rights in the future is to prevent them from emerging in the first place?
And the final, crucial question is this: can we harness the power of collective action towards greater social transformations? Or are we stuck in a downward spiral dominanted by the fickle desires and petty interests of American teenagers?