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.