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Originally published May 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 3, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Populist Digg.com finds people power revolting

Building a business on mob rule is precarious. Digg.com, a popular Web site that displays links to news stories and blog postings based...

Los Angeles Times

Building a business on mob rule is dangerous.

Digg.com, a Web site that lets anyone post and rank news stories and blogs, found that out this week when its members revolted over what they saw as an effort to censor them.

It began when Digg issued an edict Tuesday banning members from mentioning a software code that helps online pirates make bootlegged copies of movies.

Digg acted because the entertainment industry had threatened to sue.

The ban set off the masses. Scores of Digg's 1.2 million registered users deluged the site, breaking traffic records and making sure every one of the top 10 stories on the front page either included the software code, attacked Digg's ethics or both.

Many posted links to videos on YouTube that included the code's 32-digit string of numbers and letters, including one song called "Oh Nine Eff Nine" (after the code's first four characters).

Others tried to get around Digg's text filters by linking to photographs, drawings and electronic greeting cards containing the code.

One member digitally altered a church sign to spell out the code after the words "Jesus says."

Digg backed down, opening it up to a legal fight with Hollywood.

"You'd rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you," co-founder Kevin Rose blogged, acknowledging a suit could kill the three-year-old San Francisco company. "If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying."

The handling of the uprising is being closely watched. Digg's method for letting users decide what's important is being mimicked or considered by dozens of other Web sites, including major news organizations and social-networking giant MySpace.

"They're stuck because their community, which is their biggest asset, is the one putting them in this position," Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff said. "When you hand the keys over to the mob, they'll drive wherever they want to go."

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Early this week, a Digg user posted a link to a story that referenced the so-called hex code, which had already been used to circumvent the anti-piracy software that prevents people from watching unauthorized copies of some high-definition DVDs.

Lawyers for a consortium of entertainment companies warned that posting the code violated their intellectual-property rights. Digg, which generates revenues by selling ads, began removing any mention of the code and deleting the accounts of members who posted it.

"In order for Digg to survive, it must abide by the law," Digg Chief Executive Jay Adelson wrote on the site Tuesday, adding, "We all need to work together to protect Digg from exposure to lawsuits that could very quickly shut us down."

That didn't sit well with Digg's users, who fill the site each day with commentary and links to stories about new technology, politics and a wide range of other topics.

Members accused Digg of kowtowing to Hollywood.

Digg cultivated a culture of free exchange then betrayed those ideals by ripping down posts and deleting accounts, said Ryan McGuire, 27, a computer programmer from Cedar City, Utah.

Late Tuesday, Digg reversed course. Soon other news stories started making it back into Digg's front page.

Bernoff, the analyst, said the 25-person company might be appeasing its members in the short run but risked a legal battle that could ruin it.

Times writer Dawn C. Chmielewski contributed to this report.

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