Digg Encryption Uproar: All About the Right to Tinker

On the surface, the recent brouhaha with Digg and the HD DVD encryption key posted on the site seems to be about cracking the code to let people copy movies. While most people may think digital rights management (DRM) is a pain in the butt and a waste of time in the effort to fight illegal copying for commercial gain, they tend to have little interest — even the generally tech-savvy community of Digg users — in learning how to copy their own HD DVDs.

Digg’s initial response, of course, was to comply with the request to remove the code that would let a determined techie break through an HD DVD’s copy protection scheme. It was a simple response to a legal request, which on the surface seems reasonable.

Next, the issue seemed to morph into a revolt against big companies wielding power over a smaller company in the form of a big legal stick.

Dealing With Consequences

“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,” noted Kevin Rose, founder of Digg, on his blog. “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.”

Few people like it when someone bigger, stronger and with more money tells them what to do, particularly when the person being told what to do is reasonably intelligent — and the request doesn’t make a lot of sense. The issue, in some ways, is about civil disobedience over the implementation of a law perceived to be wrongheaded.

“Not every copy that’s made due to circumventing the DRM is a lost sale — and it’s probably far from that,” J. Alex Halderman, a Princeton University Ph.D. candidate in computer science, told TechNewsWorld. “In fact, there’s some evidence that a certain level of copyright infringement actually increases the total revenue of the copyright owner because it generates more fans who will buy future products and related merchandise.”

Shifting to Freedom of Speech

While arguing the efficacy of copyright and intellectual property rights no doubt makes sense to many Digg members, it’s not the kind of thing that tends to generate such a massive response and upheaval. Censorship, on the other hand, tends to ignite passion, and in the United States, it boils down to the freedom of speech. By the thousands, Digg members jumped on the freedom of speech bandwagon, which gets closer to the heart of the matter — that there’s some fundamental issues at stake in the form of a 32-digit number.

“I think people are upset at the notion that here is a number, a mathematical object, that this company is claiming ownership over and saying users are not allowed to know about,” Halderman explained. “I think people, especially technical people, find that notion very distasteful, that a company can own just an integer.”

Halderman, whose research includes computer security, DRM and the interplay between technology and public policy, also participates in the Freedom to Tinker blog coauthored by Ed Felten, who is a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University.

Felten posted a note to the Freedom to Tinker blog about the Digg issue, but didn’t get into the theme of his blog at all: He defines the freedom to tinker as the “freedom to understand, discuss, repair and modify the technological devices you own.”

Is this idea, the freedom to tinker, the bigger issue at work in the Digg HD-DVD case?

Tinkering in the Constitution

The freedom to tinker isn’t a right granted by the U.S. Constitution, but is it somehow ingrained into men and women? Most definitely.

In fact, the creation of any invention can be traced back to a tinkerer. Someone took a material, raw or part of something else, and then changed it. Is not tinkering the foundation of all innovation?

Of course, copyright and intellectual property holders — who are tinkerers themselves — perhaps tend to care less about innovation when it involves the things they’ve created.

Cars are jam-packed with patents, yet some auto enthusiasts customize constantly customize their cars without fear of lawsuits from the manufacturer. Some add wheels while others rebuild the engines and find ways to modify them for better — or at least different — performance characteristics. This sense of ownership over the product — the car — gives the owner the perceived, if not legal, right to change it.

The same feeling must certainly extend to electronic devices like PCs and movies on shiny disks, right?. Sure, just because the hood is down and it’s impossible to see the engine, so to speak, it doesn’t mean something is not under the surface.

However, while any consumer can modify a car, they can’t create mass copies of cars.

“Computers have this magical ability to make a perfect copy of the objects they operate on, which are data files, programs and so forth,” Halderman said. “And the DRM idea is to work against that, which is to work against the most fundamental principle of the digital computer, which is to copy bits around.”

Is There a Solution?

Why can’t the Advanced Access Content System Licensing Administrator (AACS LA), the trade group company funded by other companies to deal with their DRM issues, selectively deal with criminals who break DRM for profit — and ignore, if not embrace, the tinkerers?

Either way, the potential for a lawsuit looms large over the Digg world. Will the AACS trade group go after Digg and its users?

“If the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) hadn’t proven this doesn’t work well (lawsuits), I would say yes with certainty,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. “I do still think it is likely, but they will probably try to be more surgical in their approach than the RIAA has been.

“This [issue] still speaks to the fact that the movie industry has not realized that people can break any DRM scheme given time and interest. With the music industry clearly rethinking DRM, I think this will help cause the movie industry to rethink their own approach over time,” Enderle said.

“Digg tried to comply and the users revolted, and I’ll bet this won’t be the first or last time something like this will happen,” he added.

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