What do we really own?

Last week I wrote about Keurig’s experiments with physical DRM and how it was angering current customers and deterring future ones. In that post I used another example where DRM was hurting the consumer: Amazon’s Kindle policy. With Kindle, even though the user thinks they are paying to own a book, or other digital content, they are really only borrowing the content and Amazon can “take it back” whenever it pleases. Certainly, they won’t do it on a whim, but often the decisions by internet giants such as Amazon are explained only by a vague “violation of the Terms of Use” and often appealing the decision is difficult.

Another incident, a few months ago, also attested to the temporary nature of ownership of digital content. Someone tried to reset Owen Williams’ iTunes account repeatedly, causing it to be locked. To unlock the account, Apple required Mr Williams to put in a code, one he misplaced. Apple’s solution was for him to get a new iTunes account. What about the old one? One that held “everything from iTunes purchases going back seven years, app purchases and even the ability to get my iPhone out of the grips of Find my iPhone’s lock?” That was gone along with all digital purchases. Start over.

Then, last night I came across this tweet by Steve Lubitz which prompted me to think about ownership again.

To summarize the incident: Microsoft let some players beta test a new game and a few of those players leaked videos of that game. Microsoft was not happy and according to initial reports “permanently banned those leakers’ Xbox Live accounts and temporarily made their Xbox Ones totally unusable.” An update with a response from Microsoft claimed that Microsoft did not render the users’ consoles unusable but only disabled their XBox Live accounts, making the consoles still usable offline. However: “Microsoft would not expand upon this statement, clear up VMC’s comments, or clarify as to whether they actually have the ability to render consoles totally unusable.”

My console or not?

My console or not?

So here’s the interesting angle: it’s not only access to digital content can be removed on a whim but also access to physical goods. Ones that users pay good money for. Can owners use be blocked based on some vague violation of the End User Licence Agreement?

If so, this is a worrying trend. Last week I purchased my first MacBook. I purchased it through the Apple store and at no point during the process was I warned that I had to agree to a EULA to use the machine. Yet, upon starting it up, I had to agree to pages of legalese. So I did what everyone does: agreed blindly, what choice did I have? I had already paid for the laptop, opened it. Returning it was no longer an option.

But even if Microsoft’s ability to brick the Xbox are exaggerated, Apple has certainly bricked iPhones before. What will happen when other companies start blocking access to physical devices? What happens when the smart thermostat refuses to take orders from its owner and doesn’t turn on the heat during the winter? What happens when our smart front door lock stops responding? Self-driving cars don’t?

“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”

I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”



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