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The online publication of the 32-character “HD Processing string” created a little buzz a few months ago. But the code’s promotion, removal and eventual acceptance on Digg.com have created a storm of controversy. It is too early to tell what the legal consequences of pubbing the code will be for Digg.com–or for PC Magazine, for that matter–but the reader revolt, in which angry Diggers essentially shut down the site, seems fundamentally misguided. Although Digg built its entire business around user-generated content, you have no legal right to Digg anything.
Free speech is great, but remember that being free to say something doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible for it. Even without prior restraint, individuals, magazines, and companies are still open to libel, slander, and, of course, violations of intellectual property. Say what you want, but you can be held accountable for it. And this is, after all, a code that can be used to facilitate large-scale movie copying.
As a private company, doesn’t Digg have the right to pub/unpub what it wants on its site? It already restricts posts that have links to porn and hate speech, so the precedent is there. If the company doesn’t want to abet copyright violation, whether it is for fear of a lawsuit or a simple philosophical preference, doesn’t it have a right not to?
Digg wasn’t keeping users from posting the key on their own sites or in any way preventing people from sharing information privately; Digg is just preventing it from happening on its site. If these posts were being systematically removed from Usenet, I think the free speech argument could be stronger.
Free speech should apply to any public forum, but is Digg really public? It certainly pretends to be. Its entire business model is founded on user-generated, user-sorted content. Still, Digg is clearly a for-profit enterprise. As such, it is bound to be more concerned with the free market than with free speech. IMHO, letting users have free reign to post is probably a smart business decision too, but ultimately that should be Digg’s call.
Digg is a weird case, because it seems like an open forum, but it really isn’t. It is a lot like YouTube. Should YouTube be responsible for what users post on its site? Can it allow users to post porn, full-length movies, and TV shows and then collect ad revenue from it? Put aside the issue of it being “forced” to take videos down; should it be “allowed” to take videos down? That isn’t a free-speech issue. YouTube is not obligated to pub anything, and if you don’t like it, you can upload your video somewhere else.
After some equivocation, Digg is allowing all posts and seems to be making a principled stand. Or is it? Given that its entire business is based on having an active, energized community of netizens, Digg kind of had to. And maybe that is a good thing for Internet liberties, as my colleague Sascha Segan certainly thinks. All Digg has to do now is fight off a potential lawsuit, which I think it can do.
The HD processing string was widely available months before Digg posted its story. Every tech publication online, from Wired to PCMag.com, has posted the code. However, that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as accountability online. The Internet is not the law-free land of zero consequences that so many indignant Diggers want it to be.
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