Ownership of content and devices

About digital restrictions

Today, May 3rd 2013, is the international day against Digital Restrictions Management, powered by the Free Software Foundation. Usually, the term Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) refers to various restrictions that companies – or any other content provider – impose on digital media and data. These restrictions are there to let providers decide what you can do with your media and data and what not. By this, they keep you out of having true ownership of your data. This data is defective by design – no matter how much money you maybe paid for it. And it brings us into a world where we do not longer “buy” anything but only “license” the use of it. Restrictions like these evolve, just until one day when a licenser may legally decide to suddenly delete everything you have bought – remotely!

This year’s day against DRM focusses on a new and global threat to everything we are used to know about the World Wide Web: the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is discussing an Encrypted Media Extensions proposal (EME), that aims at incorporating support for DRM into HTML5. HTML is in the very heart of the Internet. Establishing DRM into HTML might become a terrific threat to the freedom of the Internet, to Free Software browsers and users freedom in general.
I hope, many people around the world join FSF and FSFE or align with other organisations in their fight against DRM in HTML5. Please, sign the petition and ring the bells as loud as you can to make other people aware of this misleading development.

Now, I would like to use this day to shed light on another issue. Something, that DRM not necessarily relates to, but, is indeed related to it: ownership of your own device.

About the ownership of your device

More and more, we see how companies and manufacturers sell crippled devices that are in fact (mini) computers – but are artificially blocked so you can not handle them like universal computers. Manufacturers are creative in how to restrict your devices and they already try to knock down the classic universal computer with a restriction that is called secure boot. But, the bitter truth is that similar restrictions are true for nowadays for “mobile” devices – phones and tablets – that put everything in question we know about ownership.

Note: What I am going to explain is definitely true for a lot of devices out there – but as I know best the Android system and the restrictions that come along with these systems, I will concentrate on Android phones. BTW: If you like to know more about unlocking bootloader, changing your operating system and use Free Software on your mobile device, find more information at http://www.freeyourandroid.org

If you buy an Android device today, you buy hardware from some manufacturer that comes delivered with a pre-installed operating system developed by Google, the Android. This operating system often comes with a lot of disadvantages, like apps you are not allowed to deinstall. Hence, they sell you a locked operating system. Unfortunately, the same hardware often comes with a locked bootloader, so you are not able to replace the operating system. Beside some apps, why is this bad?
First, it is an artificial restriction of your very own device. They don’t want you to use your own device for your own purpose – if you like to use the pre-installed system or not. They often call this an “end product” – what literally should be understood as an end to your freedom.
Second, their aim is to tie you to the manufacturers interest. And their interest is to increase numbers of sold devices year by year instead of maintaining their already sold devices. How? If you buy an Android phone today and Google is publishing a new version soon, you are not able to install the new version because your bootloader is locked. That means, no matter if your device is able to run a newer operating system, they simply restrict your access to do so. Officially, the only way to get an update for your operating system then, is an update that is offered by your manufacturer. But your manufacturer will most probably not update your device as he likes you to buy new hardware. Hence, you are perfectly vendor-locked.

Librarians Against DRMFortunately, there is a way to take back ownership of your device and to install whatever system you like to run: unlock the bootloader. But, as this is not in interest of your manufacturer – as explained above – they will most likely declare your warranty void if you do so. Which is legally not correct. As Carlo Piana and Matija Šuklje pointed outas well as a German association for consumer protection – this is not legal due to the European Directive 1999/44/EC. Unfortunately, still they try to scare you. This can not just be seen as a bad habit. It is intentional to stop users from taking ownership of their very own device. That is why they still do so – even if not on legal basis.

Manufacturers have different policies concerning the ability to unlock your bootloader. In worst cases they force you to sign a legal agreement before you get a specific code to unlock your bootloader. In these agreement, that you have to sign, they often force you to resign from your warranty – which is a transfer of your consumer rights, as explained above. But, even worse, is the legal agreement you have to sign to unlock your Motorola [1] device:

Devices that have been unlocked are for your personal use only. Once you unlock the device, you can only use it for your personal use, and may not sell or otherwise transfer the device.

Pardon? You are not longer allowed to sell your device?
The device you have bought?

Where are we going?

Remote control and management of restrictions of your digital data is something we truly have to be concerned about. But, more and more companies already impose digital restrictions on the physical use of our devices – like restrictions on the software you are allowed to install on your very own hardware. Or, as we have seen, even restrictions on how or under what conditions you may sell your very own hardware. This is a negative development that we have to take action on and try to stop these practices. If we fail to do so and give up our consumer rights and civil liberties, we have to fear that one day we wake up in a world where not just digital content is out of control of society but also the physical control of technology.
These days, Google shows us best how this can be done: Google Glass will be a Hardware that is sold by Google and it is now in beta testing under the name Google Glass Explorer Edition. Due to the license agreement that you have to sign to become a beta tester, you are not allowed to sell the device or even lend it to a friend. Well, this can be seen as bad habit or as an understandable restriction of a beta test. This is not the point. But, the point that should concern everybody: If you do not fulfill Googles restrictions, they will remotely deactivate your hardware.

This comes close to the final step: Having an integrated option by the manufacturer to remotely destroy your hardware puts every user out of control of their own IT, of their own property. If remote control will become the future, society will be pushed out of control of technology and its content. From this point it is easy to imagine censorship, supervision and control of society by some monopolies in a never-seen-before manner.

[1] This is just an example, I am aware of. There might be other companies behaving in the same way, I just don’t know.

== update May 26 ==

Please note that there is a french translation of this blog post, done by Framasoft:
Thank you very much for this translation, love you guys!