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Week in review: The revolution will be posted

Digg's struggle over the posting of a DRM encryption key highlights the power of the Net to transform a censorship issue into a cause celebre.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
Expertise I have more than 30 years' experience in journalism in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
Steven Musil
5 min read
If nothing else, social news site Digg.com learned that its users don't dig being censored.

Tuesday was a whirlwind day for Digg, complete with a cease-and-desist letter, a mutinous user base and speculation that it might get sucked into a legal battle. In a blog post Tuesday afternoon, Digg CEO Jay Adelson wrote that the company was pulling down a number of news stories pertaining to a cracked HD DVD encryption key that could circumvent the digital rights management restrictions on the media discs.

The reason for the move, he said, was a cease-and-desist letter on behalf of the Advanced Access Content System, the consortium with ownership rights to the key that had been cracked. By including stories that linked to the key, the letter argued, Digg was breaking the law.

However, Digg's user base, notoriously opinionated and accustomed to a community-run atmosphere restricted by relatively few editorial controls, revolted. Rebelling against what they saw as unnecessary censorship, Digg users so thoroughly flooded the site with submissions and comments containing the cracked key that every one of Digg's top-ranked technology stories pertained to the issue.

Later that day, a message headlined with the code and credited to Digg co-founder Kevin Rose called Tuesday "a difficult day for us" and explained that the site had reversed its earlier stance and would reluctantly allow articles containing the code to be referenced from the site.

"You'd rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company," Rose wrote in his posting. "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."

Some CNET News.com readers responded by joining the protest on News.com's TalkBack forum, while others debated the legality of spreading the code and copyrighting the code's numbers. However, one reader characterized motives on both sides of the issue as selfish.

"Copyright violations on community-driven sites have become the norm," wrote one reader to the forum. "Users love to get censored or free information, and the site owners thrive on circulating such information. This is no surprise."

New vision on patents
To know the future of tech, you got to talk to the judge.

In what could be a broader victory for American software companies, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Microsoft cannot be forced to pay up for patent infringement that occurs when copies of Windows are made and installed on computers abroad.

Generally, U.S. patent protection does not transcend American borders. At issue in this case is a complex exception in patent law that bars American companies from shipping "components" to foreign manufacturers, which could then combine them to make a machine that infringes on U.S. patents. The law does not, however, restrict sending blueprints that could theoretically prompt a foreign company to build an identical product.

The justices ruled 7-1 that "abstract software code" shipped by Microsoft to foreign manufacturers in the form of "golden master discs" amounts to such a blueprint, not a "component" of the invention.

In another patent case, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling backed away from a decades-old legal test that high-tech firms argue has sparked an abundance of obvious patents. In a hotly anticipated decision that could make it easier to challenge patents of questionable quality, the justices called for loosening the current approach set by the nation's dedicated patent appeals court for deciding when a combination of existing elements deserves patent protection.

"Granting patent protection to advances that would occur in the ordinary course without real innovation retards progress and may, in the case of patents combining previously known elements, deprive prior inventions of their value or utility," the court wrote in a majority opinion penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Technology companies were quick to praise the decision. Several Silicon Valley heavyweights, including Intel and Cisco Systems, had submitted supporting briefs urging the Supreme Court to revise the lower-court ruling.

The ruling prompted Vonage to ask for a new trial in an ongoing dispute with Verizon Communications. In March, a jury found that Vonage had infringed three patents owned by Verizon, the second-largest phone company in the United States. Vonage's appeal of the verdict is scheduled for a hearing on June 25.

One day after the ruling, the struggling Internet phone company asked the U.S. Appeals Court for the Federal Circuit to put its pending appeals process on hold and send the case back to the lower court for a new trial. However, a U.S. appeals court denied Vonage's request for a retrial of a patent case it lost against Verizon earlier this year.

On the Hill
It's been at least four years since politicians pledged to enact an antispyware law, but it still hasn't happened. Now they're trying again. A U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee once again approved a bill that proposes up to five years in prison for malicious spyware-related activities.

Similar versions passed the House by overwhelming margins in the last two congressional sessions but died before a Senate vote occurred. The bill's sponsors have said their effort differs from competing antispyware measures--backed by a different committee--because it is designed to combat the scourge without stifling software development or imposing heavy-handed regulations.

In other Senate action, a pair of overlapping proposals aimed at reining in personal data use by the government and private sector earned approval from a key committee. The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved an amended version of the Personal Data Privacy and Security Act, which was ultimately bundled with the Notification of Risk to Personal Data Act.

The measures represent just two of several competing bills that both chambers of Congress have been trying to pass in recent years. They reflect continuing public outcry over a series of high-profile breaches at universities, corporations and federal agencies: among the more recent episodes was a cyberintrusion that compromised more than 45 million customer records at TJX Companies. A number of states already have laws addressing such incidents on their books, but politicians have said a uniform nationwide standard is necessary.

Meanwhile, politicians said the U.S. government must do more to counteract propagandizing by al-Qaida and radical terrorist groups on the Internet. Leaders of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs said they're troubled that extremists are increasingly flocking to the Web to recruit, organize, conduct online courses, raise funds and plan attacks in a manner that's cheaper and speedier than ever before.

The use of the Internet by terrorist groups is hardly a new phenomenon. But according to the hearing's witnesses, the number of Web sites--many of them mirroring information published by leaders on core, authoritative sites--has multiplied from a handful in 2000 to many thousands today, with more added each week.

Also of note
Award-winning Editor in Chief Harry McCracken of PC World resigned over disagreements with the magazine's publisher regarding stories critical of advertisers, according to sources...Microsoft plans to extend its mainstream development tooling to Silverlight, its Flash challenger, and add support for dynamic languages...Apple released a QuickTime update to fix a security flaw that was used to breach a MacBook Pro at a recent security conference.