DRM and terms-of-service have ended true ownership, turning us into "tenants of our own devices"

Writing in Wired, Zeynep Tufekci (previously) echoes something I've been saying for years: that the use of Digital Rights Management technologies, along with other systems of control like Terms of Service, are effectively ending the right of individuals to own private property (in the sense of exercising "sole and despotic dominion" over something), and instead relegating us to mere tenancy, constrained to use the things we buy in ways that are beneficial to the manufacturer's shareholders, even when that is at the cost of our own best interests.

Tufekci's analysis points out a serious problem in the "Surveillance Capitalism" critique that says that paying for devices and services (rather than getting them through an advertising subsidy) would restore dignity and balance to the tech world. When Apple charges you $1,000 for a phone and then spends millions killing Right to Repair legislation so that you'll be forced to buy repair services from Apple, who will therefore be able to decide when it's time to stop fixing your phone and for you to buy a new one, then it's clear that "if you're not paying for the product" is a serious misstatement, because in a world of Big Tech monopolies, even when you're paying for the product, you're still the product.

My latest book, Radicalized, gets deep on this subject, with the lead story, "Unauthorized Bread," about refugees whose lack of political and economic agency dooms them to living in housing where all the appliances force them to buy authorized bread for the toaster, authorized dishes for the dishwasher, and authorized clothes for the laundry machines, and how they push back by seizing the means of information.

More recently, Apple has reportedly cut a deal with Amazon to remove “unauthorized” refurbishers of Apple products—people who resell repaired machines—from the Amazon marketplace. In return, it will let Amazon sell new Apple products: a win-win for the two giants, but not for consumers. Apple also forces recyclers to shred old iPhones and Macbooks rather than reuse their parts and materials. That's definitely bad not just for consumers but also for the environment.

But this isn't merely a fight over prices and profit margins. What happens when you do something with your car, phone, or other object that corporate headquarters really doesn't like? Our connected devices can simply be bricked on command. Cars have been immobilized, for example, when the ostensible owner fell behind on payments by as little as three days. John Deere tractors with “unauthorized repairs” have been similarly taken out of commission. How long before other devices start behaving as spies and taskmasters in our own home? Will the coffee maker let us have that seventh cup that the doctor advised us against?

We Are Tenants on Our Own Devices [Zeynep Tufekci/Wired]