A Web user and his information are like a grizzly and her cub. Come between them, and you’re likely to get mauled.
That’s what a group of heavyweight tech and entertainment companies learned last week when they tried to keep the lid on the code that could help break the electronic locks on HD-DVDs. On May 1, someone posted the code, which allows software developers to copy content from high-definition discs, to the social news portal Digg.com.
A consortium of companies such as Disney, Microsoft and IBM, who have invested in the disc format, responded with a cease-and-desist letter, trying to strong-arm the site’s owners into removing the code.
Digg’s administrators cooperated; its users didn’t. Crying censorship, they staged a digital riot, covering Digg’s pages with links to the banned digits, printing them on T-shirts and immortalizing them in a song that’s been played on YouTube more than 200,000 times.
Thanks to Digg’s rebels, the HD-DVD encryption code has become another victim of the “Streisand effect,” an increasingly common backlash that occurs when someone tries to muzzle information on the Web. When the Streisand effect takes hold, contraband doesn’t disappear quietly. Instead, it infects the online community in a pandemic of free-speech-fueled defiance, gaining far more attention than it would have had the information’s original owners simply kept quiet.
The phenomenon takes its name from Barbra Streisand, who made her own ill-fated attempt at reining in the Web in 2003. That’s when environmental activist Kenneth Adelman posted aerial photos of Streisand’s Malibu beach house on his Web site as part of an environmental survey, and she responded by suing him for $50 million. Until the lawsuit, few people had spotted Streisand’s house, Adelman says–but the lawsuit brought more than a million visitors to Adelman’s Web site, he estimates. Streisand’s case was dismissed, and Adelman’s photo was picked up by the Associated Press and reprinted in newspapers around the world.
The Internet has been mainstream for more than a decade. But what Streisand and others fail to realize, says Michael Masnick, the tech consultant and writer who named the Streisand effect in his blog, Techdirt, is that the rules of privacy and information control have changed. “Before, you took the hardest legal stance you could,” says Masnick. “You sent out cease-and-desist letters with a lot of nasty language. But the Internet has turned that around and allowed people to fight back and get a lot more people outraged.”