May 23-29, 2007

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Number Game

By Annalee Newitz

I HAVE A NUMBER, and therefore I am a free person. That's the message more than a million protesters across the Internet have been broadcasting throughout the month of May as they publish the 128-bit number familiarly known as "09 F9" (which is, unabridged: 09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0). Why would so many people create MySpace accounts using this number, devote a Wikipedia entry to it, post it thousands of times on news-finding site Digg, share pictures of it on photo site Flickr and emblazon it on T-shirts?

They're doing it to protest kids being threatened with jail by entertainment companies. They're doing it to protest bad art, bad business and bad uses of good technology. They're doing it because they want to watch Spider-Man 3 on their Linux machines.

In case you don't know, 09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0 is part of a key that unlocks the encryption codes on HD-DVD and Blu-ray DVDs. Only a handful of DVD players are "authorized" to play these discs, and if you don't own one of those players, you can't watch Spidey in high definition—even if you purchase the DVD lawfully and aren't doing any copying.

For many in the tech community, this encryption scheme, known as the Advanced Access Content System (AACS), felt like a final slap in the face from an entertainment industry whose recording branch sues kids for downloading music, and whose movie branch makes crappy sequels that you can't even watch on your good Linux computer (you guessed it—not authorized).

When a person going by the screen name "arnezami" managed to uncover and publish the AACS key in February, other people immediately began reposting it. They did it because they are media consumers angry about AACS, and they wanted both Hollywood and the world to know that they didn't need no stinkin' authorized players.

That's when the MPAA and the AACS Licensing Administrator (AACS LA) started sending out the cease-and-desists. Lawyers for the AACS LA argued that the number could be used to circumvent copy-protection measures on DVDs and was therefore a violation of the anti-circumvention clauses in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. They targeted blogs and social networks with cease-and-desists, even sending notice to Google that the search engine should stop returning results for people searching for the AACS key (as of this writing, Google returns nearly 1.5 million pages containing the key).

While some individuals complied with the AACS LA, in many cases community sentiment was so overwhelming that it was impossible to quell the tide of hexadecimal madness. Popular news site Digg tried to take down articles containing the number, and for a while it appeased the AACS LA. But Digg is a social network whose content is determined by millions of people, and as soon as Digg staffers took down one number it would pop up in hundreds more places.

At last, Digg's founder, Kevin Rose, gave up and told the community that if Digg got sued, it would go down fighting. Many other sites, such as Wikipedia and, deliberately published the number in articles, daring the AACS LA to try to sue them. Sites like MySpace and LiveJournal are also rife with the number; like Digg, these sites are made up entirely of user content, and it would be practically impossible for administrators to scrub the number out.

The AACS key protests have become so popular because they reach far beyond the usual debates over copyright infringement. This isn't about my right to copy movies; it's about my right to play movies on whatever machine I want. The AACS scheme is the perfect planned–obsolescence generator. It will absolutely force people to upgrade their existing DVD players, because soon they won't be authorized to play new DVDs.

Even worse, the AACS scheme allows movie companies to revoke "authorized" status for players. Already, the AACS LA has revoked the authorized status of the WinDVD media player, so anybody who invested in WinDVD will have to reinvest in a new player—at least, until that player's authorized status is revoked, too.

AACS, more than any other digital-rights management scheme, has revealed that the Hollywood studios have formed a cartel with electronics manufacturers who will do anything to suck more money out of the public. If you want to watch lawfully purchased movies, the only sane thing to do is post the number. Stand up and be counted.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who can't help but notice you're reading this column on a nonauthorized device.

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