Update: Digg.com CEO says site is 'aligned with the users'

Users battle site, decrying 'censorship'; Digg executives bow to pressure

Digg.com, the popular site where users determine the placement of new stories by voting, yesterday found itself in the center of what some are calling a test case for the power of user-generated content on social networking sites.

The brouhaha erupted when executives at Digg began removing posts that contained a software key needed to crack the encryption used to limit copying of HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs. Digg, which began removing the posts after it got a cease-and-desist letter from another company asserting that the posts violated its intellectual property rights, also began deleting user accounts of those posting the key.

That move outraged many Digg users, who repeatedly posted the key until founder Kevin Rose relented last night and stopped the deletions. Stories about the key received tens of thousands of "Diggs," or online approvals from the community and by this afternoon, Digg's top two stories -- both about the keys and user response to them -- had received approximately 35,000 Diggs.

The revolt marks a test case for social networking sites that accept user-generated content, said Dianne Lynch, dean of the communications school at Ithaca College. Lynch, who also writes regularly about Web 2.0 issues such as alternate worlds, noted that she couldn't access Digg last night because of the high traffic.

"The situation tests the validity and integrity of a social communities," she said. "The social community won."

Although Digg "saved itself" by returning control to the community, refusing to do so could have had "serious" implications for the site, she said.

"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 said. "User-generated content means that users will make a collective decision about what is and isn't appropriate. As soon as you establish a user-generated site, you by definition give up the right to say, 'No' [to publishing content]."

If sites do began to edit content on such sites, "you have undermined or devalued the whole mission or purpose of that kind of exchange," she said.

Jay Adelson, Digg's CEO, said in an interview that the company responded yesterday morning as it does to every cease-and-desist request it receives by taking down the post with the key.

"It was a little bit difficult for us yesterday morning, because frankly we are aligned with the users" on the copyright issue, Adelson said. That alignment is what later prompted the site operators to stop removing posts.

"We wanted to make that statement [to users that] on this particular issue, we're going to stick with you," he wrote. "We still enforce the terms of use, and if anybody violates our terms of use -- if pornography or anything goes up there that is not supposed to be up there, that is not appropriate, we still will be removing things."

While he wasn't surprised that the topic triggered push-back from users, Adelson said he was surprised at the tactics they took in getting their message across. He acknowledged that the users were validating the purpose of the site -- to democratize the process of deciding what is news.

"They were saying, 'We are the community that you built. ... You have given us this power, and you can't take it away on this issue.' We listened," Adelson said.

Adelson also refuted some reports that the user revolt brought down the Digg site. While some users could not post for a time last night because of the onslaught of people posting the key, the site always remained operational, he said.

Rod Carveth, associate professor of in the department of communication arts at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa., noted that a clash over the legal status of copyright -- and the lack of acceptance for copyright among Internet communities -- is at the heart of the clash at Digg.

"Yesterday was an example of an outlet of frustration by people feeling powerless -- a group whose frustration grew even more intense when administrators started deleting the posts," he said. "Lacking legal and economic power, users fought back the only way they could, through sheer numbers."

As far as moderating or editing a site, Carveth questioned whether anyone could moderate a site with the number of users that sites like Digg have. "Communities that develop on sites such as Digg, Slashdot and others form their own social norms, and when they feel they are violated, they use their own sanctions, site administrators be damned," he said.

However, Barry Parr, an analyst at JupiterResearch, said that publishing organizations must acknowledge that editing in moderation is needed when dealing with user-created content. "There are lots of people in the world, and not all of them are people of good will," he said. "[Digg] doesn't seem to understand that there is a middle ground between a tightly edited product ... and a riot. The [terms of use] policy can be as simple as 'nothing illegal, pornographic or potentially libelous can be posted.'"

Michael Arrington, who writes about Web 2.0 companies in his blog, TechCrunch.com, wrote that calling the response by Digg users a revolt "is an understatement."

Until yesterday, he wrote, "even Digg didn't fully understand the power of the community to determine what is 'news.' 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 about it."

Some Digg users said that most of the people posting the key never intended to use it for any malfeasance and likened the response to a user revolt. The outrage, wrote one user, was more due to Digg removing the posts and "having absolutely no explanation and owning up to it. A simple 'We are sorry, we don't want to get sued' would look at lot better," the user wrote on the Digg site.

By late last night, Digg founder Kevin Rose had relented under pressure from the users. In a blog post, he noted that after reading thousands of reader comments, the will of the community was clear to Digg.

"You'd rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company," he wrote. "We hear you, and effective immediately we won't delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences will be. If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying."

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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