How digital devices challenge the nature of ownership

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OWNERSHIP used to be about as straightforward as writing a cheque. If you bought something, you owned it. If it broke, you fixed it. If you no longer wanted it, you sold it or chucked it away. Some firms found tricks to muscle in on the aftermarket, using warranties, authorised repair shops, and strategies such as selling cheap printers and expensive ink. But these ways of squeezing out more profit did not challenge the nature of what it means to be an owner.

In the digital age ownership has become more slippery. Just ask Tesla drivers, who have learned that Elon Musk forbids them from using their electric vehicles to work for ride-hailing firms, such as Uber. Or owners of John Deere tractors, who are “recommended” not to tinker with the software that controls them (see article). Since the advent of smartphones, consumers have been forced to accept that they do not control the software in their devices; they are only licensed to use it. But as a digital leash is wrapped ever more tightly around more devices, such as cars, thermostats and even sex toys, who owns and who controls which objects is becoming a problem. Buyers should be aware that some of their most basic property rights are under threat.

Lost property

The trend is not always malign. Manufacturers seeking to restrict what owners do with increasingly complex technology have good reasons to protect their copyright, ensure that their machines do not malfunction, uphold environmental standards and prevent hacking. Sometimes companies use their control over a product’s software for the owners’ benefit. When Hurricane Irma hit Florida this month, Tesla remotely upgraded the software controlling the batteries of some models to give owners more range to escape the storm.

But the more digital strings are attached to goods, the more the balance of control tilts towards producers and away from owners. That can be inconvenient. Picking a car is hard enough, but harder still if you have to unearth the specs that tell you how use is limited and what data you must surrender. If it leads to more built-in obsolescence, it can also be expensive. Already, items from smartphones to washing machines have become exceedingly hard to fix, meaning that they are thrown away instead of being repaired.

Privacy is also at risk. Users were appalled when it emerged that iRobot, a robotic vacuum cleaner, not only cleans the floor but creates a digital map of the home’s interior that can then be sold on to advertisers (though the manufacturer says it has no intention of doing so). After hackers discovered that a connected vibrator, called We-Vibe, was recording highly personal information about its owners, its maker, Standard Innovation, agreed in a settlement to pay customers and their lawyers up to $3.2m, with a maximum of $127 for each claim. And farmers complain that, if crisis strikes at the wrong time, John Deere’s requirement that they use only authorised software, which funnels them to repair shops that may be miles away, can be commercially devastating. Some are sidestepping the curbs with hacked software from eastern Europe.

Such intrusions should remind people how jealously they ought to protect their property rights. They should fight for the right to tinker with their own property, modify it if they wish and control who uses the data that it hoovers up. In America this idea has already taken root in the “right to repair” movement; legislatures in a dozen states are considering enshrining this in law. The European Parliament wants manufacturers to make goods, such as washing machines, more fixable. In France appliance-makers must tell buyers how long a device is likely to last—a sign of how repairable it is. Regulators should foster competition by, for instance, insisting that independent repair shops have the same access to product information, spare parts and repair tools as manufacturer-owned ones—rules that are already standard in the car industry.

Ownership is not about to go away, but its meaning is changing. This requires careful scrutiny. Gadgets, by and large, are sold on the basis that they empower people to do what they want. To the extent they are controlled by somebody else, that freedom is compromised.

Corrections (September 28th and 29th, 2017): The original version of this article stated that the courts ordered Standard Innovation to pay customers $10,000 each. The article has been corrected to report that the company in fact settled for up to $127 each and a total maximum of $3.2m. The article also contains a reference to iRobot, a robotic vacuum cleaner that creates a digital map of a home’s interior. We have clarified in the text that the manufacturer has no intention of selling this map to advertisers