The internet writes its history at a frenetic pace.
Earlier this month, Digg.com, a popular social bookmarking site, experienced something akin to an online riot. Like a real-life riot, it began with a trickle, not a bang.
At its heart, Digg is a very simple system. Any user can submit a link for the consideration of the entire Digg userbase; if enough users "digg" a story (by casting a vote in its favor), the story gets posted on the site's main page. In general, content stays moderated.
But not always. In this case, a user posted a link to a decryption key for the HD-DVD format (which uses an encryption standard called AACS) --a key that would allow anyone to play an HD-DVD on a computer, without necessarily using an "authorized" player. According to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), the mere act of posting such a link is illegal, as it facilitates the circumvention of a copyright schema. So the Digg management, fearing legal retribution after having received a "takedown notice," deleted the story.
The dam broke. User after user reposted the link, often making the text of the link the key itself (which is not very long) --making Digg a de facto supplier of a copyright circumvention tool. Digg management continued to delete the posts as they reached the front page, but that only served to inflame the mob even further. The average front page story on Digg probably garners roughly 500 diggs; many of the AACS decryption key stories reached 15,000 diggs or more. At one point, every story on the Digg front page was part of the deluge.
Not knowing what else to do, the Digg management shut the site down. But, surprisingly, when they put it back up, the main page bore a message from the site's founder, Kevin Rose. He pledged to allow the stories to be posted, and to face whatever legal consequences might come of it. The revolt had succeeded.
So, what, then? What I see in this story is a trend that started with the first word spoken by a human: Informational technology has been a democratizing force, shaping political reality in its own image. The further we advance our capacity to communicate, the more responsive leaders must be to that communication, if they wish to retain power. The printing press, for example, by enabling mass coordination and information sharing, eventually rendered monarchical governments obsolete, and paved the way for the proliferation of democracy worldwide. For a large portion of the world's population, anything less than electoral, representative democracy is no longer thinkable, much less acceptable.
We won't accept less than that, but how about trying for more? How much higher can the internet raise that bar? If the Digg revolt teaches us anything, it's that our own system of government has some fundamental anachronisms. The technology exists to enable us to give our feedback on governmental performance instantly, rather than having to wait several years for an election. There is no longer any excuse to allow a President whose approval rating is apparently lower than 30 percent, for example, to remain in office, where he or she can continue to do the things that caused the low approval rating in the first place.
We can do better than that. Hopefully it won't take a real-world revolt to convince people.