Thursday, May 03, 2007

How Digg should have handled the HD-DVD fiasco

Kevin Rose and faced a particular brand of problem I would call "mob democracy". is a social content website that allows users to submit news stories and allows other users to vote on it (referred to as digging the story). One particular user was kind enough to submit a story on a HD-DVD decryption key that could be used to decrypt the AACS (Advanced Access Content System) encryption scheme that implements copy protection on digital media like DVD's featuring HD content.I am not going to try and explain how to use this key not because of DMCA (I live in India and DMCA can't do a thing to me) but because this information is available aplenty on the internet and would be redundant here.

It so happened that the post was "scrubbed" by the Digg admins because of legal issues. Other users noticed and responded in a way true democracies do when suppressed, they "rebelled". The rationale given by for removing posts related to the HD-DVD key was :

"We’ve been notified by the owners of this intellectual property that they believe the posting of the encryption key infringes their intellectual property rights. In order to respect these rights and to comply with the law, we have removed postings of the key that have been brought to our attention" - Jay Adelson, Digg CEO

The rationale behind this is clear, Digg wanted to stay away from any (potential) lawsuit. We are not sure if they were served a Cease & Desist or received an official notice hand delivered (the only legal way of delivering a notice) to remove the content that infringes copyright laws of the intellectual property holders. Removing content from a website that if left alone, could potentially lead to a long and financially burdening legal hassle is common sense. I don't think I have too many objections to that.

What irked me most was the manner in which this cleanup was carried out. Digg boasts of being a democracy that allows its users to have a say in what goes into its pages. If the Digg admins found stuff that could cause trouble, the best approach was let users know that they are taking this story offline "explicitly", blare on the front page about the story, give users time to assimilate the information and then take the story down.

Instead, Digg admins resorted to what dictators do to censor flow of information. They went ahead and deleted posts that referred to the HD-DVD key ad-hoc and didn't stop there. When they found that users responded with more stories on the same topic, they started banning users and deleting user accounts. This only infuriated the crowd and spread a mood of rebellion that led to an uncontrollable flow of posts on the same topic, each one of them receiving 100's of Diggs. I don't remember seeing stories with more than a thousand diggs that often, but yesterday, I was able to see "all" stories on the front page on the same topic, each with many thousand diggs to their credit.

True breed democracies don't take any form of suppression lying down. Internet is by far the biggest and one of the most successful democracies out there. When regular digg users found that their favorite site didn't have the nerve to stand up and take a stance and instead resorted to underhand tactics and silent deletion of posts, it didn't go down with them well. I, for one, would not recommend that Digg take a stand to oppose DMCA or do anything illegal. The question is not whether DMCA is correct or not, it is law in the United States and all companies and individuals are expected to comply. If you hate DMCA and its restrictive capabilities, the place to express that is with your senator or start a protest and garner strength through the power of the internet and social wildfires like Digg, /. and Reddit.

All I would have expected from Kevin and Jay and the Digg folks is this, "take a stance, let users know what your stance is, stick to it". If Digg had taken a stance upfront that they were not going to allow content on their website that could bring a lawsuit to their doorstep, so be it. All they had to do was broadcast this information to all its users, delete the offending posts, make a request to users to desist from posting material on this and last but not the least, make it known how genuinely sorry they are to censor information. Digg failed to do any of this, I would not know the reason why they resorted to underhand tactics instead of a transparent approach. But on this day, Digg failed in its biggest claim of being a purely democratic system for the submission and sharing of information.

I know Kevin Rose posted to the Digg blog later that they would let the HD-DVD posts stay and would face the music. Needless to say, Kevin got it all wrong. People did not revolt because information they were looking for was suppressed. There are dozens of ways for anyone with half a brain to obtain this HD-DVD key using Google and other social content websites. The infuriation from users was not because of just suppression of freedom of expression on a people driven website but because of the manner in which it was executed. Slashdot, one of the oldest social content websites has faced similar issues in the past and their approach has always been transparent. The issue was not about compliance nor about content censoring, it never was. To me, the core of the issue lies in the way the whole thing was handled. Boasting of democracy and deleting posts in the background is double standards and any website that adopts double standards will lose credibility and hence its user base before it can say "cheese".

P.S. It was rumored that Diggnation had accepted sponsorships from the HD-DVD consortium in the past and Digg had reasons other than fear of a lawsuit to remove posts related to the decryption key. If this is credible information, shame on you Digg, shame on you Kevin and stop advocating democracy and a bunch of choice words when you don't care a damn about that yourself. "Walk the talk" if you want people to take you seriously.