Digg and the HD DVD Key

A few thoughts about the recent goings on at Digg and elsewhere.

Last week, the hexadecimal key code that is used for copy protection on HD DVDs appeared in a blog. The key code is a 16-digit string of two-digit numbers and letters — if you spend more than an hour a day on the Web, you must have seen it by now. I won’t repeat it here because, frankly, I don’t have to. It’s easy enough to find online. Just Google HD DVD Key.

And that brings up the main point of this post: the so-called Steisand Effect. In 2002, Barbra Streisand sued a photographer who included a photo of her Malibu estate on the Web. He was doing an aerial photography research project about coastal erosion and the photo was one of hundreds of others that were published on the Web. In the publicity that followed, the photo was copied and reproduced thousands of times all over the Web. If Ms. Streisand had just kept quiet about the whole thing, it probably would have gone unnoticed. Instead, the information she wanted removed spread like a virus and received a huge amount of publicity, thus becoming far more known than she wanted.

And, of course, she had this effect named after her, which further brings up the subject (and photo links) every time someone else tries to suppress information on the Web.

That’s what happened with this HD DVD key. It appeared on a blog and someone dugg it. It soon got lots of diggs. The folks at Digg, acting on a cease and desist order (or rumor that they were about to get one) decided to be proactive and remove the references on Digg. Digg users saw this as censorship and immediately went nuts, posting more blog articles and references to the offensive key code — many of which used the code in the post title. When the Streisand Effect entry was updated on Wikipedia (yesterday, perhaps), the updater noted that there were currently more than 280,000 references to the code, a song, and multiple domain names with variations on the code.

Grant Robertson‘s post on DownloadSquad.com, “HD DVD Key Fiasco is an Example of 21st Century Digital Revolt” said it best:

As Joe Rogan’s character on Newsradio once quite accurately quipped, “Dude, you can’t take something off the Internet.. that’s like trying to take pee out of a swimming pool.” The content providers have attempted to do exactly that, remove pee from the proverbial swimming pool that is the Internet and, as we’ve witnessed so many times before, they’ve failed miserably.

If the AACS Licensing Authority would have kept out of this, the code probably would have come and gone like most material on the Web — within a few days. Instead, the 16-digit number has become “the most famous number on the Web” and is everywhere. What’s worse is that while a week ago, only a few hackers might have known what to do with it to unlock or remove protection from HD DVDs, now it’s likely that someone will go through the bother of writing a software program that does the work for everyone. If that software isn’t already out, I expect it to appear any day now. And I’m sure its location will be dugg so everyone knows about it.

What can we — and others — learn about this? With the Web, nothing is private. If information can be known, it will be known on the Web. But it can remain obscure if — and only if — the owner of the information does nothing to hide it.

What should the AACS Licensing Authority have done? Quietly recall the key code and start using a new one. Or, better yet, just ignore the whole thing. Millions of people would not have known about it at all if AACS had done nothing.

But what this also brings to light is the public’s feelings about DRM. Consumers don’t want it. And now consumers are starting to fight back.

What do you think?