Unpacking the Digg-AACS Controversy

Opinion: The online mob has ensured the AACS code is infamous, but it could be too costly a victory if Digg faces legal action.

By now the Digg user revolt story over DRM circumvention is so widespread that writing an analysis piece seems like an ironic exercise in meme replication.

The story began with AACS LAs wish to keep their hex code secret, and ends with the publication of that code on an inestimable amount of blog posts, forum posts, t-shirts, and photos. The Internet sucks at keeping secrets.

And with the involvement of popular news-ranking site Digg (which accounts for about 1 percent of all Web traffic in the United States), the story now not only encompasses anti-DRM polemics, but also Net attitudes about censorship and the politics of mob rule. In the short term, the online mob has succeeded in ensuring the AACS code is infamous, but the victory could be a pyrhhic one. Digg, having endorsed the publication of the code, could face a lawsuit.

How to parse this story? Let us count the ways:

1. This is a story about DRM circumvention. In the beginning, AACS LA created a DRM scheme to protect HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs. That scheme relies in part on a hex value passed between disc and disc player. But the code was broken and then posted online. Both acts, the breaking and the publishing, violate the DMCAs ban on trafficking in circumvention devices. The legal precedent was set back in 2000, when the courts ruled that posting another DRM scheme (DeCSS) to a Web site violated the DMCA.

2. This is also a story about copyright. AACS isnt claiming that the code is copyrightable, only that its a component of a DRM scheme. Posting such a component violates the DMCA. But Netizens turn the argument around, arguing that its disturbing that a private entity could lay claim to a simple series of numbers. In trying to make their point, geeks have replicated the number as binary code, morse code and simple number strings. They also point to the fact that AACS LA claims to own millions of other random number strings.

3. This is a story about civil disobedience, too. Geeks and savvy media consumers believe they have moral authority on their side. DRM doesnt work, they say. (Which is true, despite the irony that in the case of anti-DRM codebreakers, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.) Its untenable for a private group to control random numbers and, they say, publishing the code itself really doesnt do any harm. In order to break AACS you also need special software and a fair amount of tech savvy. Meanhwile, non-savvy citizens can simply download DRM-free media from any number of bittorrent sites and darknets on the Web.

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4. Finally, this is a story about the dangers (and power) of mob rule. Kevin Rose made a strategic business decision. He understood that Digg could be liable for posting links to the AACS code. But he came to realize that martyring Digg for a popular cause—one that, lets face it, even has Steve Jobs on its side—would be more beneficial to the site in the long run. Even if Digg is forced to censor links, Rose wins popular support. But if Digg faces further courtroom repercussions, the mob will have helped their champion to an unfortunate legal fate.

On the plus side, the Digg-AACS story shows both the folly of DRM and the folly of mob rule. Im inclined to side with the mob on this one—DRM is an onerous, faulty policy. But had the information in question been something more sensitive—a social security number, national secrets, documents stolen from a presidential candidates home, whatever—I would likely be less understanding.

Because in the end, this is a story about balance. The democratic nature of Web communication is often a good thing. But if we begin to give the mob too much moral authority we risk undermining the freedoms we strive so hard to protect.

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