Thursday, August 20, 2009

Who's controlling your electronic devices (really)?

Most of us have a range of computer-based devices these days.

A desktop PC, laptop, netbook, PDA, mobile-phone, e-Book reader -- the list seems to get longer every day.

When you lay down your hard-earned cash to buy a device like this, it's reasonable to expect that you have control over that piece of electronics. It's up to you what software you load and run on your computer. It's up to you to choose what applications your mobile phone runs. It's your choice as to which eBook titles you load into a reader and which you delete.

Well that's the way it's supposed to work but, as recent events have shown, manufacturers seem to want the final word when it comes to your right to choose what you do with the products they make.

The best example of this is the recent remotely commanded deletion of an eBook file on the Amazon Kindle eBook reader.

People who'd paid good money to load the iconic George Orwell novel 1984 onto their Kindle woke up one day and found that it had mysteriously vanished.

No, it wasn't a hardware of software fault that caused their "bought and paid for" eBook to disappear, it was Amazon's doing.

On July 17th of this year, Amazon commanded Kindle readers to delete two legitimately purchased eBook titles from any reader onto which they'd been loaded, replacing them instead with a store-credit.

Amazon claim that this was because the publisher who'd sold them the eBook version of these titles had no legal right to do so and therefore they were simply enforcing the original copyright holder's rights, through the unannounced deletions.

Tell that to the unfortunate student who'd annotated his copy as part of an assignment, only to find all that hard work effectively lost forever through no fault of his own.

And then there's the iPhone...

As demonstrated recently (and commented on right here in this column) Apple have conceded that there is the same kind of functionality built into the iPhone. They claim that it's a safety measure that will only be used in the event that some kind of malevolent or destructive application is found to be installed on the phones. By reserving the right to delete or disable any application on any or all iPhones, Apple says it's doing us all a favour.


Now, if these remotely activated "rights to delete" are not abused it's possible to argue a case for their inclusion in our modern electronic devices. But what if they're misused, solely for the commercial benefit of the company who makes those devices?

And what right do these companies really have to say what you can and can't do with your legally purchased devices?

Worst of all, what happens when these "back doors" are compromised by some clever hacker?

How can we be sure that important information or applications won't be deleted at will or at random by some hacker group, who then demands huge sums to confer immunity only to those who are willing to pay-up when blackmailed in this way?

Food for thought.

Should manufacturers have a right to over-ride a consumer's choices and actions when they purchase a hi-tech electronic device or should laws be passed that protect the individual's right to ultimate control?

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