Apparently there was a revolution, and I almost missed it.
This is what happened: Somebody cracked and published the encryption key that unlocks HD DVDs, allowing for the copying of the discs. The code started appearing on various websites. The Motion Picture Association of America and the Advanced Access Content System Licensing Administrator (AACS LA) began issuing Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) violation notices. Some websites attempted to censor the publication of the code. There was a massive reaction from users towards this apparent act of censorship: the more the code was being “suppressed,” the more it appeared on web sites, blogs, t-shirts, songs, etc. [For a detailed account of the controversy, see the Wikipedia article.]
I found this interesting for a couple of reasons.
The first is the way in which Web 2.0 companies have had to negotiate a balance between their corporate interest and the interests of their users. As you probably know already, after its initial attempt to censor the posts containing the code (and the subsequent ‘revolt’ by users), Digg reversed its decision and said that it would rather “go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company.” As Andrew Lih writes:
This is quite unprecedented — you basically have a multi-million dollar enterprise intimidated by its mob community into taking a stance that is rather clearly against the law.
But what you have, actually, is a Web 2.0 company (reportedly worth around $200 million USD) doing a cost-benefit analysis and realizing that losing its user base would pose a higher and more immediate risk than facing the possibility of lawsuits from “a bigger company” (I cannot help but wonder what would happen if the cost-benefit analysis does not favor the users…).
The second aspect that I find fascinating about this whole thing is the way in which the dissemination of the encryption code has been constructed as a revolutionary, subversive act —as an example of what cyber revolt looks like (establishment, beware!). I was surprised to see many of the people I read online immediately jump on the bandwagon, and gleefully proclaim our revolutionary duty to publish the numbers (one actual quote: “Hahahaha! I am breaking federal law! Hahahaha!”).
Now, I’m no friend of the DMCA. Also, I believe that breaking the law can be a powerful statement if the right social cause is invoked… But a DVD encryption key? Why not refuse to pay taxes to protest the war, or something like that? Perhaps the nature of the revolt can be explained by the demographics of the “revolutionaries”: according to Businessweek, 94% of Digg’s army of free labor are male, over 50% are IT workers in their 20s and 30s, and they earn $75,000 a year or more. Ryan Shaw calls ’em as he sees ’em:
While most of the blogosphere was atwitter over the tantrums being thrown at Digg, real injustice in Los Angeles was being ignored. After watching this video [of Police oppression during the May 1st immigration reform march] I was ashamed to be part of a community (the designers and evangelists of “Web 2.0?) which sanctimoniously promotes “people power” among the spoiled and entitled while disregarding the tightening grip of authority on the poor and disenfranchised. [see his post for links to video and newspaper articles]
We keep hearing that social media tools will help to bring about social change. So are we being overly critical of the tools just because of the communities that presently wield them? This whole affair might have at its core something rather trivial (a code to hack DVDs), but can we extrapolate some of the lessons and techniques learned to a social justice context? Or as Ethan Zuckerman asks:
What would it take to harness this sort of viral spread to harness the net in spreading human rights information? Can activists learn from the story of The Number and find ways to spread information that otherwise is suppressed or ignored in mainstream media?
I wonder what activists would compromise in this transition to cyber revolt. To begin, I doubt that experienced activists believe that all it takes is for suppressed information to reach the public. Brecht suggested that “He who laughs has not yet heard the bad news.” Today, however, he who laughs has indeed heard the bad news, but from The Daily Show.
But the thing I believe anyone interested in social change should explore more carefully are the kinds of action that information can be transformed into as it is communicated. Perhaps, as Tiziana Terranova explains in Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age (2004, Pluto Press), what we call “information” already embodies a certain containment of openness:
The first condition of a successful communication becomes that of reducing all meaning to information —that is to a signal that can be successfully replicated across a varied communication milieu with minimum alterations. (Terranova, 2004, p. 16)
When activism is defined solely in terms of the exchange of information, we are reducing the options available for acting. That is how an encryption key (information in its purest form) was easily converted into a “subversive message” whose replication and dissemination was seen as a revolutionary act. As long as we’ve had media —and I’m afraid emerging “social” media don’t pose a significant alternative— we’ve seen this dynamic: the replication of information has itself come to define what it means to act, has become the source of meaning. The individual goes from being a social actor to an intersection of information flows. She possesses more information than ever before (about global warming, about genocidal poverty, about the false pretenses under which wars are started), but all she can do is replicate and pass on this information. The purer the information (09 F9 …), the more efficient the activism.