Digg, which operates a news aggregation website that lets users determine the placement of stories through voting, this week found itself at the centre of what some analysts and academics are calling a test case on who has control over user-generated content on social networking sites.
What happened on Digg.com was described even more trenchantly as "an internet riot" by many bloggers and online posters. And the outcome was clear: The rioters won.
The brouhaha erupted last Tuesday when Digg staffers began removing posts that contained a software key for cracking the encryption technology used to limit copying of HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs. Digg. It took action after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the encryption technology's developer asserting that the posts violated its intellectual property right and also started deleting the accounts of users who were posting the key.
The two moves outraged many Digg.com regulars, who repeatedly posted the key until company founder and chief architect Kevin Rose relented that night and put a stop to the deletions.
Dianne Lynch, dean of the communications school at Ithaca College in New York, says the online street fight tested "the validity and integrity of a social community." Digg saved itself from failing the test when it decided to return control to its users, added Lynch, who writes regularly about Web 2.0 issues.
"If you're going to turn [the site] over to the community, you can't decide to change your mind without having serious implications," Lynch says. "User-generated content means that users will make a collective decision about what is and isn't appropriate."
But Barry Parr, an analyst at Jupiter Research in New York, says media companies and web publishing organisations -- including Web 2.0 businesses such as Digg -- have to openly acknowledge that editing in moderation may be necessary when dealing with user-created content.
"There are lots of people in the world, and not all of them are people of goodwill," Parr says. "[Digg] doesn't seem to understand that there is a middle ground between a tightly edited product ... and a riot."
Michael Arrington, the editor of a blog called TechCrunch, says in a post that it was "an understatement" to call the response by Digg users a revolt. "The users had taken control of the site," Arrington wrote. "And unless Digg went into wholesale deletion mode and suspended a large portion of their users, there was absolutely nothing they could do about it."
The San Francisco-based company tried at first. In a blog entry last Tuesday afternoon, Digg CEO Jay Adelson says that removing posts containing the decryption key was a necessity. "In order for Digg to survive, it must abide by the law," he wrote.
But hours later, company architect Rose says in another blog post that after reading thousands of user comments, the will of the Web site's community was clear. He added that Digg would stop the deletions and "deal with whatever the consequences will be."
The key at the centre of the controversy is a 128-bit integer with 32 digits that unlocks the content on HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs, nullifying encryption technology called the Advanced Access Content System. AACS was developed by a consortium that includes IBM, Intel and Microsoft Corp, as well as disc makers and movie companies.
The decryption key leaked onto the Internet in February, and the AACS consortium has been trying to bottle it back up. Digg initially wouldn't identify the source of the cease-and-desist request but later confirmed that it came from an attorney for the consortium.