The First Amendment vs. Trade Secrets in Web 2.0

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It's what you might call "Digg-ing their own grave."

This week saw what is being characterized in the tech community as the first real "cyber-riot." And like real riots in the real world, Tuesday's explosion on Digg.com over the release of copyright protection codes for HD-DVDs had all of the usual elements of irrationality, illegality, false bravado and cowardice. And, like many such events, it exposed some interesting, and perhaps dangerous, fault lines in the Web world.

In case you don't know, Digg.com is a hugely popular Web site, mostly for young people, in which users post news stories from a vast array of sources, and their brethren either vote to keep them on the site or remove them. Stories that stay on the site move up and down the queue based upon reader interest.

That's the simple explanation, but as with all Web 2.0 community sites, it has quickly grown much more complicated than that in the last year. For example, Digg was originally focused upon science and tech stories, but has grown to include everything from entertainment to politics. And that in turn has brought with it a whole host of problems. For example, there are reports of companies and politicians buying their stories onto Digg by secretly paying for votes.

Worse, users have learned to use the "bury" feature, originally designed to get rid of spam postings, to crush stories with political perspectives (usually conservative) that don't match their own. The most notable victim of this kind of burying is one of the blogosphere's most popular sites, Little Green Footballs.

But the biggest problem with Digg is not the business itself, which is an impressive creation, but its community. One of the things we're learning about the Web 2.0 world is that all communities aren't alike; when you let millions of anonymous users design your product, you also let them determine your fate. And Digg has put itself in the hands of an army of postadolescents with too much education and too much free time, the age cohort that gets its news from "The Colbert Report" and holds the anarchistic view that all information should be, in fact, "wants to be," free.

Nothing wrong with that. Indeed, been there, done that. But now, in my gray-haired middle-age I've come to realize that if you are going to create a venue for children to play, someone has to be the grown-up. And that is where Digg blew it.

The Secret Code

For those of you who haven't been tracking the story, it went like this: Two days ago someone anonymously posted on Digg the secret code numbers (more precisely, thirteen combinations of letters and numbers) that unlocked the copy protection on HD-DVDs. As Pajamas Media noted, "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."

Within minutes, the string of numbers began proliferating across Digg, as Diggers realized that they could destroy the barriers put up by the HD-DVD consortium to stop mass copying and sharing of its product. As copy protection is widely hated, and seen as a way for big business to gouge individuals, this blow against the suits was roundly cheered.

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