Google reaches into customers' homes and bricks their gadgets

Revolv is a home automation hub that Google acquired 17 months ago; yesterday, Google announced that as of May 15, it will killswitch all the Revolvs in the field and render them inert. Section 1201 of the DMCA -- the law that prohibits breaking DRM -- means that anyone who tries to make a third-party OS for Revolv faces felony charges and up to 5 years in prison.

Revolv is apparently being killswitched because it doesn't fit in with Google's plan for Nest, the other home automation system it acquired. Google's FAQ tells its customers that this is OK because their warranties have expired, and besides, this is all covered in the fine-print they clicked through, or at least saw, or at least saw a link to.

This isn't the earthquake, it's the tremor. From your car to your lightbulbs to your pacemaker, the gadgets you own are increasingly based on networked software. Remove the software and they become inert e-waste. There is no such thing as a hardware company: the razor-thin margins on hardware mean that every funded hardware company is a service and data company, and almost without exception, these companies use DRM to acquire the legal right to sue competitors who provide rival services or who give customers access to their own data on "their" data.

We are entering the era where dishwashers can reject third-party dishes, and their manufacturers can sue anyone who makes "third-party dishes" out of existence. Selling you a toaster has never afforded companies the power to dictate your bread choices, nor has making a record player given a company the right to control which records get made.

The last-millennium Digital Millennium Copyright Act has managed to stay on the books because we still think of it as a way to pull off small-potatoes ripoffs like forcing you to re-buy the movies you own on DVD if you want to watch them on your phone. In reality, the DMCA's anti-circumvention rules are a system that makes corporations into the only "people" who get to own property -- everything you "buy" is actually a license, dictated by terms of service that you've never read and certainly never agreed to, which give companies the right to reach into your home and do anything they want with the devices you've paid for.

That’s a pretty blatant “fuck you” to every person who trusted in them and bought their hardware. They didn’t post this notice until long after Google had made the acquisition, so these are Google’s words under Tony Fadell’s direction. It is also worth pointing out that even though they have my email address, the only way a customer discovers this home IoT mutiny is to visit the Revolv web site.

Look, I’m a big boy. It’s not the end of the world. The fact is that I can fix the problem by purchasing a replacement device such as a Samsung SmartThings hub. It’s not terribly expensive, a few hundred dollars. I’m genuinely worried though. This move by Google opens up an entire host of concerns about other Google hardware.

Which hardware will Google choose to intentionally brick next? If they stop supporting Android will they decide that the day after the last warranty expires that your phone will go dark? Is your Nexus device safe? What about your Nest fire/smoke alarm? What about your Dropcam? What about your Chromecast device? Will Google/Nest endanger your family at some point?

All of those devices have software and hardware that are inextricably linked. When does an expired warranty become a right to disable core device functionality?

The time that Tony Fadell sold me a container of hummus. [Arlo Gilbert/Medium]

Notable Replies

  1. This sort of behaviour is precisely why silicon valley -should- develop smart triggers for firearms whether there is profit in it or nay. Just an act of self preservation really, to give themselves the ability to brick firearms, if this is how they'll be treating people.

  2. Rama says:

    It sounds like they're shutting off the servers (which this device relies on), not actively "reaching into homes and bricking" anything. Yes, either way the device is no longer useful, but shutting down a server (which is what they are doing) is a lot different than pushing an update that bricks a device (which is not what they are doing).

  3. Vert says:

    It shouldn’t be on Google to continue to operate servers, agreed.

    The problem is that a Revolv owner can’t run (or choose) their own server legally.

  4. Did no one read their motto and think, "Hey, is this evil?"

    Two other options:

    1) Just let it go. Ok, you want to use Nest as the main product, just ignore the other one. Let them go obsolete on their own and stop doing support or updates. You don't have to brick them.

    2) Give everyone who owns one a Nest.

    So basically in the future, all the retro, non-networked appliances will be the things to own, because otherwise one could have their toaster bricked mid-ego. Shit, they could even hold you for ransom... What if they paired up with energy companies - you shit won't work until your bill is paid.

    OH gawd, its getting dark in my head again. I better get back to work....

  5. I view all cloud-based services as ephemeral. I'm just along for the ride until I have to go somewhere else or pony up the time and resources to roll my own solution (c.f. Google Reader).

    It's still a dick move when they could open up the APIs to a third party, or just open source the whole thing (but then, what does that do for the value of those sweet, sweet patents?).

    As an aside, i think it is incredibly ironic that the BB Store has sold "lifetime" subscriptions to VPN services for pretty much the same reasons.

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