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Forget Web 2.0. Say Hello to Web 3.0

What does the advent of Web 3.0 have in store for the Internet — and society as a whole?

May 18, 2007

What does the advent of Web 3.0 have in store for the Internet — and society as a whole?

Forget all the highfalutin talk about metaverses and folksonomies. Web 3.0 could be all about anarchy, lawsuits and brutal demands by a battalion of self-styled digital Robin Hoods, with a pinch of cyberbullying thrown in to match the emotional spectrum of real life.

True to the revolutionary spirit, the riot that changed everything occurred on May 1, 2007. As most old-school radicals were marching across the globe to celebrate the International Workers’ Day, the reform-minded among them engaged in more-innovative action, taking on the sacred cow of the entertainment industry — digital rights management (or DRM).

DRM is a technology used by publishers and owners of copyrighted material to prevent unauthorized sharing and usage of digital data. (If you ever had to transfer a song from one iPod to another, you've seen DRM in action.)

Needless to say, DRM has faced constant attacks from the digital crowd, which has accused it of penalizing those who pay for the files they access by limiting how they can use the files. (The billions of illegal mp3 files that are downloaded from dubious music sites, for example, have no DRM restrictions whatsoever).

On May 1, 2007, though, the revenge of the nerds went online, taking unprecedented and often mysterious forms. The rebellion started on the social news website, which allows users to share links to interesting stories found on the Internet and then vote on how much they like each submission.

One such story contained a string of 32 digits that can be used to unlock HD-DVD protections, which would make all HD-DVD discs easy to copy and share.

Digg was hardly the first site to publicize the number. It has been available on the Internet for a few months and was nothing new to the hyperactive hacking crowd.

After hundreds of users voted for the story, it got a lot of prominence on Digg’s front page, which is composed entirely on the basis of user recommendations (hence the “social news" element).

However, a request coming from the Advanced Access Content System — a consortium of companies managing licensing for high-definition copy protection — forced Digg to temporarily remove any mentions of the number from its page.

But the genie was out of the bottle. Many Digg users kept submitting new stories about the magic number.

Many other websites and blogs started reposting it (including creative drawings and photos of the number appearing on a popular photo-sharing site, Flickr, videos of the number on the popular video-sharing site YouTube — and t-shirts with the number imprinted on them in many online shops).

Curiously, many bloggers were constantly quoting the First Amendment, among a plethora of other justifications for their actions.

All major Web services got involved. Each of them had to make a major decision that may yet result in multi-million dollar lawsuits. Some of them — like Wikipedia — were used to vandalism and had all the necessary mechanisms and editorial layers to deal with it quickly.

Some — like Digg — didn’t, and after a period of indecision, they sided with their users, not the letter of the law. In the words of its founder Kevin Rose, Digg decided to “go down fighting — rather than bow down to a bigger company.”

The incident revealed a lot about the changing nature of the Web. Paradoxically, the main threat that it faces is not viruses, malicious software or censorship. It’s the Web itself, with its constantly growing capacity to generate and accommodate lawsuits.

Forget the good old times when Web and entertainment companies owned bits of each other in a series of intertwined but not always successful deals (think AOL and Time Warner).

Enter the times when the very same companies are suing each other to death for copyright violations that are perpetrated by their users (think Google and Viacom).

As Digg’s case has shown, it’s the users — not investors, legal authorities or company executives (the Digg management acknowledged not consulting their investors on what they did) — that are often driving the strategic direction of many successful Web 2.0 businesses.

Hence the sudden tectonic shift from user-generated content to user-generated power. The day somebody invents user-generated cash and user-generated lawyers, the transformation of the Web will be complete.

But as the complicity of Wikipedia, Google and some other services in this affair has shown, for quite a bit of time we will still live with the "crippled" "old" mindset — where the law and the buck are still king (doesn't that seem so Web 2.0 now?).

Yet, things may change soon. Governments don’t give in to demands of terrorists for a good reason. If you give in once, countless copycats will follow. Digg’s users are not terrorists, but their demands bordered on the extreme — and Digg gave in to them.

Now, what would happen next time that YouTube is pressured to remove controversial materials from its website? What would its users — many of whom are the same people who rebelled against Digg — do? Most likely, they would rebel against YouTube, plus whoever has coerced YouTube into removing the offending content.

As we are entering a world where users can accomplish more with a click of a mouse than lawyers and bankers can do with threats of a lawsuit and angry phone calls to the chief executive, even Viacom would want to think twice before submitting itself to thousands of hack attacks after another lawsuit aimed at Google.

What is most troubling about this story is that the tremendous power of crowds is still being wasted on issues of marginal global importance. Try mobilizing online civic action of the same magnitude for most global causes: climate change, human rights, or Darfur — and you’ll see that the magic number to unlock a HD-DVD leads to much more focused, organized and passionate action.

The problem of digital rights management epitomized by the "number affair" is, of course, important and would eventually be solved through a constructive dialogue between big business and customers. After all, nobody really likes the fact that they can’t copy a DVD they bought or transfer a music file they legally downloaded — and companies are slowly waking up to that fact.

For a good reason, there are not many economists, scientists or politicians who would rank the digital rights management problem among the top 50 issues that requiring immediate global attention.

Paradoxically, the up-and-coming new media community that constantly accuses the big and old media of permanent attention deficit disorder suffers from similar sins, only on a grander scale. Thus, it would be a major disappointment to both old and new media if Web 3.0 would only reinforce that lack of attention — instead of rectifying it.