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Does The Number have lesson for human rights activists?

If you were reading technology blogs yesterday, you probably encountered a string of hexidecimal numbers – 09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3… – at least once. The string in question is the “processing key” that can be used to unlock the encryption on HD DVD discs protected by the AACS (Advanced Access Content System) digital rights management system. To decrypt a DVD – which you’d need to do to play it on an unsupported platform like Linux, to make a backup of a DVD, or to unlock it and post it to filesharing networks – you need that processing key, the volume ID key (which is easily guessable – it’s sometimes as simple as the movie title and the date is was released) and downloadable software to perform the decryption.

The key has been floating around the web since late last yearWired’s Gadget Lab blog posted the string on February 13, and included links to software that makes it possible for non-expert users to decrypt DVDs. But most people outside the DVD hacking scene hadn’t encountered the number until this week, when AACS LA, the consortium responsible for the encryption standard began sending cease and desist notices to websites, demanding they stop posting the string. These letters were send under the auspices of the US Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which prevents circulation of “technology, service, device, component” which “is primarily designed or produced for the purpose of circumventing a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title”.

The cease and desist letters backfired, in a big way. Searching for the key on Google reveals 320,000 pages that contain the code. (AACS LA has demanded that Google stop indexing sites that contain the string – it’s unclear whether Google will comply.) Many of the user-generated content sites on the web spent yesterday grappling with questions of how to handle posts that contained the number, and the legal ramifications of hosting those posts. My friend Andrew Lih, who is very active in the Wikipedia community and writing a book on Wikipedia, describes events as an all-out cyber-revolt.

Three online communities handled the revolt very differently. Slashdot has a (small) set of articles tagged with the sensitive number, and has allowed articles and comments containing the number to stand. Administrators on the voting-based news site, Digg, started removing posts that contained the number and ended up triggering a user revolt. As Digg founder Kevin Rose explained in a blog post, “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 the revolt had its intended effect – after brief site downtime, Rose and his admins relented and allowed the stories to survive. In a blog post whose title included the number in question, he noted, “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.”

Wikipedia, Lih tells us, also dealt with posts, comments, talk threads, categories and usernames containing the number: “As I was hanging out in the administrator’s IRC chat room, there were roughly a dozen or so admins fighting the attempts to add it. They deleted articles, blocked users, blocked IP numbers and ‘salted the ground’ so certain articles could not be created. After an hour or so, they had it under control.” Lih notes that Wikipedia is far more accustomed to vandalism and other situations where administrators need to assert control over content than Digg, and so had good systems in place to deal with the outbreak of content that could be legally dangerous to the site.

Reviewing the HD_DVD article on Wikipedia, it’s not clear to me whether Wikipedia has stopped trying to prevent dissemination of the number or not. The article has been locked, and the edits that included the number have been removed from the article history. But the talk thread on the article includes the number as well as extensive discussion about whether Wikipedia is “censoring” the number, leading to criticism from Wired’s Epicenter blog.

In the meantime, the number is turning up in all sorts of online media. As of this morning, Flickr hosted 32 photos featuring the number, including some very artistic renditions, as well as others that reference well-known internet memes. Zazzle.com features a t-shirt imprinted with the number. And it’s just a matter of time before someone mashes up some Jonathan Coulton tracks with someone reading the key…

My interest in the situation has less to do with DVD hacking and more to do with the question of how sensitive information can spread on the Internet. The spread of the number is something of a perfect storm. Many of the techno-libertarians who populate sites like Digg have no great sympathy for digital rights management or the DMCA. The clandestine information – a 16 digit number – is really small, and can be spread through numerous different methods. (As cryptographers have observed, it’s much easier to stop the spread of the video files, which are gigabytes in size, that targeting less that a kilobyte of information…) The people interested in spreading the number have lots of content creation tools at hand. The consequences for spreading the number are percieved to be very low – people posting webpages will likely receive cease and desist notices and most will comply. And the mass nature of the action suggests that most individuals will be spared serious legal consequences, if only because it would be very difficult for AACS LA to bring thousands of lawsuits.

Some of the techniques used to spread the number are familiar to people in the anti-censorship community. Putting the number in an image file is an idea that Chinese anti-censorship activists have been using for some time now. There’s a popular image of Einstein at a blackboard that has been repurposed by activists to spread addresses of proxy servers or messages about the “GFW” – the Great Firewall of China. An online tool allows you to create your own Einstein image with arbitrary text on it. (I suspect it’s just a matter of time until we see Einstein inscribing the hexidecimal code…)

Widespread use of Flickr to spread the URLs of unlocked proxy servers could have an effect in countries like China, UAE and Ethiopia… until governments began blocking FLickr (which they have in many countries that filter the Internet.) To spread clandestine information, it’s important not to have a single point of failure, like a single website that can be blocked. That, in turn, requires that an idea “go viral”, that hundreds of individuals decide to start spreading the information. And that requires an idea that’s sufficiently compelling that individuals agree to take on the risk – however small – of spreading the information.

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?

14 thoughts on “Does The Number have lesson for human rights activists?”

  1. I hypothesize that the strength of online activism and organizing is proportional for the capacity to act purely within the online realm. If the “action” can be realized online (as in the case of republishing a simple hex string), it seems a lot easier to achieve that viral impact.

  2. I fear that the strength/will to fight censorship is extremely limited.

    We already see with Darfur (and many other examples) that people have terribly high tolerance for horrific human rights abuses in other countries.

    It takes very special people to stand up to forces greater than themselves, which is why we must celebrate them with the Nobel prize, recognition by Amnesty International, RSF, etc.

    It is also why we should celebrate great newspapers and other news organizations that have made the (later) decision of Kevin Rose countless times.

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  4. very interesting post! i’ve wondered myself how social & viral media can be used to further human rights. in some ways, i think it’s already happening – such as the clip of fleeing Tibetans shot at the Chinese border. The video cropped up everywhere, including the homepage of Digg, spreading it to the screens of mainstream media. Was the result a significant call to boycott China or re-examine their abuses? Tough to say for sure. Every little bit helps, and in some cases, the watershed movements take a while to manifest. In the meantime, we just keep plugging away.

  5. Ethan,

    I think the major issue will be how to boil down a complex human rights issue to a single, small set of bits.

    i.e. a 16 digit hex number, with a clear and very easy to explain purpose (break DRM on HD DVD’s) lends itself to spreading.

    But like the difference between viral startups and the many 1000’s with great technology but much harder adoption rates – what’s the 15 second pitch for an issue such as Tibet? Darfur? Censorship in various countries around the globe? Net Neutrality? electronic voting machines/vote rigging? Corruption in various countries? etc

    I do, however, think it is possible – and that boiling down of issues to something short and memorable is something that many groups have done (relatively successfully – see “Dolphin safe tuna” in the past).

    But in an online context what should they be spreading? Tor addresses? Proxy servers? torrents of banned books?

    Great question to be asking!


  6. viral spreading of human rights information is a fascinating issue.

    I remember thinking about that when I read of the homo-bashing mob attacking 3 men suspected of being gay, on Valentine’s day in Jamaica. They were chased into a shop where the head of J-Flag happened to be shopping. He called NY Human Rights Watch on his cell phone, who called the local commissioners and the Jamaican chief police commissioner, while the men were still being threatened by the crowd. blogging might not have been fast enough, in this case, but it was an interested example of tech’ed up communication

    (the full story is available from http://direland.com)

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