You Don’t Really Own Your Own Gadgets

Angelena Iglesia

The water filter inside a household refrigerator is a simple device: a plastic tube packed with activated carbon. Nonetheless, replacement filters for certain GE refrigerators cost a stiff $55. And they need to be replaced every six months. So it’s no surprise that many GE fridge owners seek cheaper generic […]

The water filter inside a household refrigerator is a simple device: a plastic tube packed with activated carbon. Nonetheless, replacement filters for certain GE refrigerators cost a stiff $55. And they need to be replaced every six months. So it’s no surprise that many GE fridge owners seek cheaper generic filters. These fit just fine. But when the owner presses the button to dispense water or ice, nothing comes out.

The culprit is a bit of engineering almost as ingenious as it is infuriating. It seems that official GE replacement filters include a small RFID chip whose only purpose is to tell the refrigerator that an up-to-date GE-brand filter has been installed. If a customer installs a generic filter, the water system shuts off. As tech writer Jack Bush puts it, the fridge echoes the computer in 2001: “’I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t dispense any water for you right now.’”

Those frustrated fridge owners have encountered a troubling quirk of our digital age: We don’t really own the products we buy anymore (at least not any product more complex than a shovel). Instead, manufacturers effectively license them to us under terms of their choosing. While you might possess a piece of digitally enabled hardware, the manufacturer ultimately controls how—or even whether—it works.

“There’s no question manufacturers are abusing their power,” law professor and Instapundit founder Glenn Reynolds tells me. As in the case of the GE fridge, sometimes they do this to extract more revenue from us. People who purchased Wink “smart-home” hubs recently got a message that unless they start paying a $4.99-a-month fee, their devices will roll over and play dead. Apple has a history of remotely “throttling” battery performance in older iPhones. (The company says it does this to protect the batteries, but Apple watchers say it tends to happen just as new iPhone models hit the market.) Sometimes consumers get abandoned when a product they own no longer fits a company’s business model. Owners of some Sonos smart speakers and Philips’s Internet-linked Hue Bridge lighting system recently learned that those manufacturers will stop “supporting” those devices. That means that Web-based features will disappear, along with the software updates that keep the platforms safe from hackers. Google parent Alphabet acquired the pioneering Revolv smart-home company, a competitor to its own Nest system, in 2014. Less than two years later, it “bricked” Revolv hardware installed in thousands of homes.

As Internet-connected devices proliferate in our lives, so will questions about who is really in control. The GE brand of appliances is now part of the massive Haier conglomerate, based in China. Haier is a global leader in the race to build an “Internet of Things,” in which everything from refrigerators to toothbrushes will be connected. That will certainly make it easier for our gizmos to receive their instructions from the home office.

“It’s digital feudalism, in which an elite owns all the property and we get to use it in ways they proscribe,” writes sci-fi novelist and digital pundit Cory Doctorow. “The difference is that today, our aristocracy isn’t even human.”

Even the most humble products are bossing us around these days. Many Keurig coffee makers will operate only with approved Keurig “K-Cup” pods. (Yes, coffee pods now come with RFID chips.) For a small monthly fee, people who sign up for HP’s Instant Ink program get ink cartridges automatically delivered whenever their printer runs low. But there’s a catch: Stop paying your monthly bill and your ink cartridges immediately stop working, even if they’re full. The Web is full of ingenious hacks for getting around these sorts of digital tollgates. “Mashup Mom” describes the “top four ways to hack your Keurig” on her website. Several sites show how to bypass GE’s filter sensor by physically hacking a valid RFID chip out of a different component and then taping it to a generic filter. Companies fight back with ever more intricate systems to detect tinkering. They also make home repairs difficult by requiring proprietary tools, or gluing phone batteries in place to make them harder to replace. And many keep vital information—such as service manuals—secret from their customers. Only company-approved technicians are supposed to open the black box.

Nathan Proctor leads the “Right to Repair” campaign for U.S. PIRG, a public-interest advocacy group. “We believe you should be able to do what you want with the products you own, within the confines of the law,” he says. The group lobbies the federal government and fights for state laws protecting consumers and independent repair shops who defy the restrictions put in place by manufacturers.

The movement isn’t just important for homeowners. John Deere forbids unauthorized repairs on some of its high-tech agricultural equipment. Some farmers, who say they can’t afford the long wait for a John Deere technician, have turned to Ukrainian hackers to supply the code they need to keep their tractors running. During the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, hospital technicians desperately trying to fix broken ventilators were stymied by “software locks” on the equipment. When a medical-equipment-repair blogger posted repair manuals on his website, one ventilator maker threatened to sue.

A libertarian might argue that companies have every right to set standards for how they want their products used, and that consumers can freely choose to accept or reject these terms. But today’s digital products don’t exist on the level playing field of libertarian imagination. Big manufacturers have big government behind them helping set the rules of the game. For decades, entertainment companies have encoded their music and movies with anti-copying software. In 1998, Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which made it illegal to “circumvent” such protections on copyrighted works. The law contained some sensible protections for copyright holders. But it also had a chilling implication: Because most of the software that runs phones, laptops—or farm tractors—is copyrighted, the DMCA’s “anti-circumvention” clause potentially criminalizes any attempts modify the way a digital device operates.

Even publishing a description of such a hack could land a person in jail. In 2009, Texas Instruments threatened three “calculator hobbyists” with legal action after they blogged about ways to run “home-brew” operating systems on their TI calculators. These hackers weren’t trying to steal TI’s intellectual property, mind you; they were just having some nerdy fun. The Electronic Frontier Foundation concludes that the DMCA’s “anti-circumvention provisions have been used to stifle a wide array of legitimate activities.”

Fortunately, Right to Repair advocates have won some key battles in protecting consumers. In recent years, the U.S. Library of Congress, which regulates copyright, has somewhat narrowed the DMCA’s broad sweep. For example, it is now legal to fix your laptop or “jailbreak” your smartphone so that it can run unapproved apps. Car owners got relief when Massachusetts passed a Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act in 2012. It requires automakers to provide the technical information needed to fix their vehicles, and it makes it easier for car owners and repair shops to read the trouble codes on a car’s onboard computer. Today, most carmakers abide by those terms throughout the country.

Even people who wouldn’t dream of taking a screwdriver to a laptop can benefit from having their rights spelled out more clearly. For example, “products should have expiration dates,” Proctor suggests. Since it’s not always feasible for companies to support older products indefinitely, he argues, they should commit to keeping your gadget’s software updated for a specific number of years. Consumer Reports, along with other advocacy groups, supports a voluntary agreement called the “Digital Standard.” It sets expectations for “how manufacturers should handle privacy, security, and other digital rights.” That’s a good start. Though in the end, Reynolds notes, “I’m afraid legislation is the only real solution.”

Meanwhile, we shouldn’t forget that consumers still have some power in this relationship. Before you buy your next gadget, do a little research. Make sure the company wants to treat you like a customer—and not a serf.

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