AACS Key Censorship Leads to First Internet Riot

Attempts to censor a string of letters and numbers stirred Internet users to overwhelm Digg.com and other websites to change their legal position on censorship. The offending string? An AACS encryption key used to protect HD DVD and Blu-ray Discs.

It may have all started with news that the Advanced Access Content System Licensing Administrator (AACS LA) sent a legal threat to Google Inc., asking for the removal of all references on its Blogger sites to HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc copy protection circumvention.

Cory Doctorow, instructor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, was one of those affected. He removed a blog post from his class website containing a string of letters and numbers used in defeating the copy protection behind HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc.

Keys used in the AACS protection used by both high-definition optical formats were uncovered earlier this year when a crafty individual who goes by the name “Muslix64” found a way to circumvent HD DVD encryption. He then applied his techniques to Blu-ray Disc, and was met with equal success. Then in mid-February, another hacker named “arnezami” discovered a single encryption key that would unlock the protections of every HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc on the market. Previously, every HD movie needed its own unique key in order to be decrypted; but with arnezami’s discovery, there was one key to rule them all.

The high-def skeleton key circulated the more clever areas of the Internet without much fanfare until two months later, when word of the AACS legal threats to Google hit. Certain stories concerning the HD DVD encryption key were submitted to traffic-tool site Digg.com, only to quickly be deleted by the site’s operators.

The website’s users began to notice the acts of censorship, but fought hard by submitting even more stories surrounding the AACS key. Eventually, the number of key-related stories on Digg rose to over 80, with each story receiving as many as thousands of votes from its users. Even when the site administrators attempted to censor all the stories, the users pressed on.

Eventually, Jay Adelson of Digg addressed the matter in a blog post saying, “I just wanted to explain what some of you have been noticing around some stories that have been submitted to Digg on the HD DVD encryption key being cracked.”

“We’ve been notified by the owners of this intellectual property that they believe the posting of the encryption key infringes their intellectual property rights. In order to respect these rights and to comply with the law, we have removed postings of the key that have been brought to our attention,” Adelson wrote.

He continues, “Whether you agree or disagree with the policies of the intellectual property holders and consortiums, in order for Digg to survive, it must abide by the law … Our goal is always to maintain a purely democratic system for the submission and sharing of information – and we want Digg to continue to be a great resource for finding the best content. However, in order for that to happen, we all need to work together to protect Digg from exposure to lawsuits that could very quickly shut us down.”

Wikipedia, another website primarily driven by content provided by users, had locked the section dedicated to discussing a particular string of letters and numbers pertaining to HD DVD. However, Wikipedia reopened the section to users again earlier today.

A Digg user contributed his calculations estimating that over 50,500 diggs, or positive votes for the story, had accumulated by Tuesday evening – and that number continued to grow, showing the Internet community’s strong feelings towards the freedom of information and the disgust over the censorship of simple letters and numbers.

After insurmountable pressure from users of the site, Digg founder Kevin Rose decided to change the tune of his Web site’s previous position. He explained, “We’ve always given site moderation (digging/burying) power to the community. Occasionally we step in to remove stories that violate our terms of use (eg. linking to pornography, illegal downloads, racial hate sites, etc.). So today was a difficult day for us. We had to decide whether to remove stories containing a single code based on a cease and desist declaration. We had to make a call, and in our desire to avoid a scenario where Digg would be interrupted or shut down, we decided to comply and remove the stories with the code.”

“But now, after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you’ve made it clear,” Rose continued. “You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. 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.”

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