Story Updated: See below
Back in April of this year Digg introduced a URL shortening services that caused a great deal of controversy. The problem was that, unlike other URL shorteners that simply redirected the user to the actual page, Digg’s put the site in a frame that displayed the “DiggBar” across the top. This meant that that Web sites would not receive search engine benefit from Digg links and many felt that Digg was unfairly using other people’s sites to boost traffic to their own domain as well as causing confusion among end users.
When confronted with the legal and ethical issues that come with framing a site, as well as a massive user uproar, Digg backed off and decided to use a standard 301 redirect on all users who were not logged in, including search engines, and reserved the DiggBar for logged in Digg users. Though it wasn’t a perfect compromise, it seemed to appease most.
However, earlier this week, Techruch, Mashable and others began to report that the behavior of Digg’s short URLs began to change. Digg short URLs, for non-logged-in users, were no longer redirecting to the site, but to Digg’s landing page for the article, which in turn links to the full work.
Also immediately the story began to flare up again. However, this time, bloggers weren’t the only ones who were upset. Twitter users and others that had shared digg.com links were angry that there was no notification about the redirect. Digg was getting it from all sides and, once again, Digg appears to be backing down.
But what are the legal issues with this kind of redirect? The answer is, strangely, not many.
Digg, the Redirect and the Law
What is strange about the latest Digg redirect is that, in contrast to the DiggBar, which raised a slew of potential issues, this one raises almost none.
However, even without the TOS, it is unclear exactly what such a lawsuit would be. The links point to Digg’s server and they have a right to manage and alter their server as they see fit. For example, if you linked to this article but I later redirected it to an update, would that be a violation of the law? Even if the “update” was on another site, it would still be difficult to prove that any law had been broken or damages had been incurred. However, it would probably stop you from linking to this site in the future.
Since the Digg URLs are not framing sites, which raises trademark, copyright and other issues, but is instead linking to the original site, deep linking being completely legal, there isn’t much of an avenue for an attack in the courts. One might argue some form of “interference”, but that seems difficult to argue for many reasons.
However, it seems as if the legal implications are the farthest from people’s minds. For most, it appears that this never was a legal issue so much as it is an issue of ethics and trust.
Trust is Key
The bigger issue with the change is how it affects the trust of those who have put their faith in Digg. This change was made with no public acknowledgement, no notification and no warning. The issue was only discovered after users filed technical support requests with Digg and found that the service was working as intended.
To users that have created Digg URLs and Webmasters that have encouraged the practice, this is a tremendous breach of trust. Digg publicly promised that its URL system would work a specific way and then changed it without warning. Some have likened this to taking a highway that goes to one city and redirecting it to another without warning the cars driving along it. It’s an apt analogy for the most part.
Legally, Digg has the right to do what it wishes with the URLs on its service. It also makes one wonder what would happen if TinyURL, Bitly or any of the other URL shortening services took a similar approach. The backlash, no doubt, would be incredible.
On the Web, trust is everything. Though Digg URLs seem to still be very common no Twitter, if Digg’s service can’t be shown to provide a consistent and predictable service, it seems likely that users will abandon it. On that front, there is no shortage of alternatives.
In the end, the news appears to be good. Digg’s CEO Kevin Rose sent out a Twitter tweet stating that he was unaware of the change to the Digg URL service and hinted that he was not happy about them. Also, in my testing of Digg.com URLs this morning, most seem to be redirecting straight to the actual site, though a large percentage are still going to Digg. A Digg URL that I created as a test, Also seems to redirect correctly.
However, this incident has only highlighted how unreliable Digg’s service is and how inconsiderate it can be to the wishes of not just Webmasters, but their own users.
I decided to do a comparison search for bit.ly URLs to see how many of those were being posted. The difference was astounding. Though Digg URLs are popular on Twitter, there is currently well over 100x more Bit.ly ones being posted than Digg.com ones. Though most of this is because Bit.ly is now Twitter’s default service for URL shortening, it doesn’t seem likely that Digg is going to gain any ground when its own users can’t trust the URL is going to go where it is supposed to.
In short, Digg has shot itself in the foot in a major way with this blunder, washing away what little trust it had after the DiggBar controversy and making itself even more of an enemy to Webmasters and users alike.
This is not how you build a successful business. I just hope Digg learns that lesson before it is too late.
Update: Digg has posted an official blog entry on the topic. According to the post items that have NOT been submitted to Digg previously will be redirected to the source (why my URL did not work) and all Digg URLs created before the change should now forward to the original source as well, as they were before the change. However, all articles that have been submitted to Digg will have their Digg URL redirect to the Digg landing page.