Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Digg revolt: Rethinking the 'wisdom of crowds'

Posted by Richard Koman - May 3, 2007

Antony Mayfield calls it the Great Digg Revolt of 2007 and Mike Arrington says Viva la Revolution but for Web 2.0 entrepreneurs, the story of Digg's capitulation to its mob of users intent on linking to a DRM crack must be somewhat disquieting.

The events as Arrington describes them:

The Digg team deleted a story that linked to the decryption key for HD DVDs after receiving a take down demand and all hell broke loose. More stories appeared and were deleted, and users posting the stories were suspended.

That just got the Digg community fired up, and soon the entire Digg home page was filled with stories containing the decryption key. The users had taken control of the site, and unless Digg went into wholesale deletion mode and suspended a large portion of their users, there was absolutely nothing they could do to stop it.

Digg founder Kevin Rose's white flag post, though, contains some interesting subtext:

We had to decide whether to remove stories containing a single code based on a cease and desist declaration. 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.

But now, after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, 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.

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The desire to avoid being shut down, of course, refers to the fact that Digg is legally obligated to respond to takedown notices under the DMCA. (This story describes the law in the Google context.) Failure to do so exposes the site to civil liability. And since the aggrieved party is the MPAA, not exactly known for being litigation-shy, the decision could hardly have too difficult.

A harder decision would have been the one to "capitulate to the mob" as Arrington says. But in Rose's spin Digg is now willing to "go down fighting" and "die trying." But exactly what principle is Digg willing to die for? The right to post the magic code? To fight against the immorality of DRM? Nonsense.

Digg is acting like a royal battallion that finds itself cut off by an agry mob of colonials. When all is lost, they grab the rebels' standard and shout, a la Arrington, "Down with the King!" In other words, this is mob rule and Digg's only legal argument once they are sued will be "it was out of our hands because our business model is based on users controlling the site."

In other words, in Digg's success is the seed of its own destruction - and it is not alone. Any truly user-driven site can careen out of control at any time. Digg realized that continuing to act within the law seriously threatened to leave the site an abandoned empty husk, that they could not have both legal protection and a business, so they opted for business over no business, albeit one with a huge, gaping chasm that will be excavated by corporate lawyers.

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