In Digg Nation - The Number Game

It was the number that launched 24,552 31,523 Diggs -- most of those Diggs were directed at Digg itself. It was also a number that launched thousands of copies of itself across the Internet. What is this number? It's a secret... or rather was a secret. It is also a "copyrighted" number that has now been "copylefted" or "copylifted" depending on your point of view. It is a number that unlocks copy protection on HD-DVDs. To the movie industry it is a number worth untold millions of dollars if people don't know it, and one that could cost the industry untold millions of dollars if people do know it. Which they do. Now. In the millions.

Google probably won't tell you the number. They've received a "cease and desist" order from the owners of the number. But Digg can tell you even though for a bit yesterday they decided they couldn't and began to delete every page and posting on Digg that contained the number. That was the policy then:

"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."

But live by the users, die by the users. Digg, a site whose content is created by over a million users, quickly became the focus of the Digg users who believe, in the core of their being, that "Information wants to be free." They instantly reacted to the "policy" by flooding Digg with thousands of postings containing the number, together with cross-postings to blogs and forums by thousands. Flowing right behind this first wave was a tsunami of rage directed at Digg itself. By the mornings light, Digg founders had "heard the users" and changed course 180 degrees. In a pure Hail Mary play they decided to go all in on the side of the users:

"We had to make a call, and in our desire to avoid a scenario where Digg would be interrupted or shut down, we decided to comply and remove the stories with the code," according to the posting. "...You've made it clear. You'd rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won't delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be. If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying."

Digg may indeed die from this decision since the large media companies like to make examples of people and companies that thwart their will -- although it usually doesn't involve companies that can ship bits by the tanker load like Digg and the online behemoth Google. Still, once the lawyers start their billing clocks the only limit is the depth of pockets on all sides of the argument. Digg seems to feel that it has to placate the users who "made it clear."

But just who is the you that "has made it clear?" Charles Johnson calls it bowing to the mob, " a virtual lynch mob," and he has reason to know about the Digg mob. Allah at Hot Air pronounced it a riot as in "laff riot." The action has created one of the largest Blogpiles even seen on Techmeme as hundreds of blogs weighed in. Other sites and voices call what happened "an example of 21st century digital revolt." But is it?

Not at all. One of the constants of the Internet since the Stone Ages when hypertext standards were but a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee eye, is the conflict between the "Information wants to be free" crowd and the "Yes, but people need to get paid" set has been a staple on the Net. (Think "Discussions about what 'fair use' really means.")

Both then and now the nature of the living Web is that everything scrolls off. Because of this, everything is repeated.

An Internet Stone Age parallel to today's "sekrit" number kerfuffle was first seen on a massive scale in the "Scientology versus the Internet" Usenet wars of the early 1990s. In this long running flare up, the publication of "secret internal documents of the 'Church' of Scientology" were promulgated across the internet via the Usenet group alt.religion.scientology by one Dennis Erlich, a disaffected one-time high ranking member of Scientology.

Because the posting of these documents placed Scientology in an unfavorable light and revealed "trade secrets," the group moved to expunge the both documents and the newsgroup. Scientology used a host of methods, legal and spam based, to try and stop these documents from being available at all. But the ubergeeks of the newsgroups answered them with mirror sites, document files held on servers in foreign countries, and a "make my day" attitude. The result was that many millions more people grabbed and read the documents exposing the "secrets" of Scientology than ever would have if Scientology has just let sleeping newsgroups be.

Today's "sekrit number" case is a close parallel. You may not care about defeating a copy-protection scheme on your HD-DVD. You may not even know how to begin. But if somebody tells you a number is a closely guarded secret that is now being widely told, you might just be curious enough to look and save a copy of the number to your hard drive. Just in case.

What is that number again? We forget, but you can find out if you really want to Digg it.

[Pssst.... Be careful with that click. It leads to a Digg post with over 1,300 comments and could take a looooooooong time to load.]