January 17, 2017

Why the 09ers Are So Upset

The user revolt at Digg and elsewhere, over attempts to take down the now-famous “09 F9 …” number, is now all over the press. (Background: 1, 2) Many non-techies, including some reporters, wonder why users care so much about this. What is it about “09F9…” that makes people willing to defend it by making T-shirts, writing songs, or subjecting their dotcom startup to lawsuit risk?

The answer has several parts. The first answer is that it’s a reaction against censorship. Net users hate censorship and often respond by replicating the threatened content. When Web companies take down user-submitted content at the behest of big media companies, that looks like censorship. But censorship by itself is not the whole story.

The second part of the answer, and the one most often missed by non-techies, is the fact that the content in question is an integer – an ordinary number, in other words. The number is often written in geeky alphanumeric format, but it can be written equivalently in a more user-friendly form like 790,815,794,162,126,871,771,506,399,625. Giving a private party ownership of a number seems deeply wrong to people versed in mathematics and computer science. Letting a private group pick out many millions of numbers (like the AACS secret keys), and then simply declare ownership of them, seems even worse.

While it’s obvious why the creator of a movie or a song might deserve some special claim over the use of their creation, it’s hard to see why anyone should be able to pick a number at random and unilaterally declare ownership of it. There is nothing creative about this number – indeed, it was chosen by a method designed to ensure that the resulting number was in no way special. It’s just a number they picked out of a hat. And now they own it?

As if that’s not weird enough, there are actually millions of other numbers (other keys used in AACS) that AACS LA claims to own, and we don’t know what they are. When I wrote the thirty-digit number that appears above, I carefully avoided writing the real 09F9 number, so as to avoid the possibility of mind-bending lawsuits over integer ownership. But there is still a nonzero probability that AACS LA thinks it owns the number I wrote.

When the great mathematician Leopold Kronecker wrote his famous dictum, “God created the integers; all else is the work of man”, he meant that the basic structure of mathematics is part of the design of the universe. What God created, AACS LA now wants to take away.

The third part of the answer is that the link between the 09F9 number and the potential harm of copyright infringement is pretty tenuous. AACS LA tells everyone who will listen that the discovery and distribution of the 09F9 number is no real threat to the viability of AACS or the HD-DVD/Blu-ray formats. A person getting the 09F9 number could, if he or she is technically skillful, invest a lot of work to get access to movies. But there are easier, less tech-intensive ways to get the same movies. Publishing the number has approximately zero impact on copyright infringement.

Which brings us to the civil disobedience angle. It’s no secret that many in the tech community despise the DMCA’s anticircumvention provisions. If you’re going to defy a law to show your disagreement with it, you’ll look for a situation where (1) the application of the law is especially inappropriate, (2) your violation does no actual harm, and (3) many others are doing the same thing so the breadth of opposition to the law is evident. That’s what we see here.

It will be interesting to see what AACS LA does next. My guess is that they’ll cut their losses, refrain from sending demand letters and filing lawsuits, and let the 09F9 meme run its course.

Digg Users Revolt Over AACS Key

I wrote yesterday about efforts by AACS LA, the entity that controls the AACS copy protection system used in HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs, to stop people from republishing a sixteen-byte cryptographic key that can unlock most existing discs. Much of the action took place at Digg, a site that aggregates Web page recommendations from many people. (At Digg, you can recommend pages on the Web that you find interesting, and Digg will show you the most-recommended pages in various categories.

Digg had received a demand letter from AACS LA, asking Digg to take down links to sites containing the key. After consulting with lawyers, Digg complied, and Digg’s administrators started canceling entries on the site.

Then Digg’s users revolted. As word got around about what Digg was doing, users launched a deluge of submissions to Digg, all mentioning or linking to the key. Digg’s administrators tried to keep up, but submissions showed up faster than the administrators could cancel them. For a while yesterday, the entire front page of Digg – the “hottest” pages according to Digg’s algorithms – consisted of links to the AACS key.

Last night, Digg capitulated to its users. Digg promised to stop removing links to the key, and Digg founder Kevin Rose even posted the key to the site himself. Rose wrote on Digg’s official blog,

In building and shaping the site I’ve always tried to stay as hands on as possible. 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. 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.

This is a remarkable event. Critics of Web 2.0 technologies like Digg often say that users are being exploited, that the “communities” on these sites are shams and the company running the site is really in control. Here, the Digg company found that it doesn’t entirely control the Digg site – if users want something on the site badly enough, they can put it there. If Digg wasn’t going to shut down entirely (or become clogged with postings of the key), it had no choice but to acquiesce and allow links to the key. But Digg went beyond acquiescence, siding with its users against AACS LA, by posting the key itself and practically inviting a lawsuit from AACS LA.

Digg’s motive here probably has more to do with profit and market share than with truth, justice, and the American way. It’s not a coincidence that Digg’s newly discovered values coincide with the desires of its users. Still, the important fact is that users could bend Digg to their will. It turns out that the “government” of Digg’s community gets its power from the consent of the governed. Users of other Web 2.0 sites will surely take note.

AACS Plays Whack-a-Mole with Extracted Key

The people who control AACS, the copy protection technology used on HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs, are apparently trying to shut down websites that publish a certain 128-bit integer. The number is apparently a “processing key” used in AACS. Together with a suitable computer program, the key allows the decryption of video content on most existing HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs.

I won’t publish the key here but you can spot it all over the Web. It’s a long string starting with “09 F9”.

The key has been published on a few websites for months, but in recent days the AACS “Licensing Authority” (AACS LA) has taken to sending out demand letters to websites that publish the key, claiming that the key is a circumvention technology under the DMCA. News of these demand letters, and the subsequent disappearance of content and whole sites from the Net, has triggered an entirely predictable backlash, with thousands of people reposting the key to their own sites.

The key will inevitably remain available, and AACSLA are just making themselves look silly by trying to suppress it. We’ve seen this script before. The key will show up on T-shirts and in song lyrics. It will be chalked on the sidewalk outside the AACS LA office. And so on.

It’s hard to see the logic in AACS LA’s strategy here. Their end goal is (or should be) to stop unauthorized online distribution of high-def video files ripped from HD-DVD or Blu-ray discs. The files in question are enormous and cumbersome to store and distribute, containing more than a gigabyte of content. If you can’t stop distribution of these huge files, surely there’s no hope of stopping distribution of a little sixteen-byte key, or even of decryption software containing the key. Whatever tactics can stop distribution of the key should be even more effective against distribution of movies.

My guess is that AACS LA miscalculated, thinking that a few demand letters would succeed in suppressing the key. As the key spread, it seemed natural to continue sending letters – to do otherwise would be an admission of defeat. Now the key is spread so widely that there’s no point in sending any more letters.

The next question is whether AACS LA will try to sue somebody who defied a demand letter. There’s no real strategic point to such a suit, but even big organizations act out of spite sometimes.