Google Tells Customers “Ownership” is now an Illusion

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You just think you own the device you paid for.

By Kit Walsh, Staff Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation:

Nest Labs, a home automation company acquired by Google in 2014, will disable some of its customers’ home automation control devices in May.

This move is causing quite a stir among people who purchased the $300 Revolv Hub devices—customers who reasonably expected that the promised “lifetime” of updates would enable the hardware they paid for to actually work, only to discover the manufacturer can turn their device into a useless brick when it so chooses.

It used to be that when you bought an appliance, you owned it, and you could take it apart, repair it, and plug in whatever accessories you wanted without the manufacturer’s knowledge or permission.

Nowadays, software enables devices to do new, useful things, but it also enables manufacturers to exert more control than ever before over their customers. Manufacturers use software to ensure a device serves their financial interests throughout its lifetime, forcing you to go to an authorized repair shop, buy official parts, and stay out of the secret workings of the device that would let you know what it’s doing with the data it collects about you.

The latest example, the Hub, communicates with and controls home electronics using several different communication standards. The Hub debuted in 2013 and was discontinued after Nest acquired Revolv in late 2014. One selling point was that the one-time payment of $300 included a “Lifetime Subscription,” including updates. In fact, the device shipped without all of its antennas being functional yet. Customers expected that the antennas would be enabled via updates.

Customers likely didn’t expect that, 18 months after the last Revolv Hubs were sold, instead of getting more upgrades, the device would be intentionally, permanently, and completely disabled. (To be fair, the Revolv Hub design resembles HAL from Space Odyssey: 2001, so perhaps someone saw this betrayal coming).

Nest Labs and Google are both subsidiaries of Alphabet, Inc., and bricking the Hub sets a terrible precedent for a company with ambitions to sell self-driving cars, medical devices, and other high-end gadgets that may be essential to a person’s livelihood or physical safety.

This is far from the first time that customers’ software and electronics have been downgraded by manufacturers. Updates can disable features the customer paid for that have fallen out of favor with the vendor, as when Google disabled privacy settings on Android or Sony took away the ability to run GNU/Linux on a Playstation 3. Manufacturers can even render a device unusable until the customer “agrees” to new terms of use, as Nintendo did with the Wii U. Other software and devices, including some video games, are designed so they simply stop working when they can no longer dial home to a server run by the vendor.

In an ideal world, Hub owners would be free to point their devices at a different central server, run by a third-party competitor or a trusted friend, or even run such a server on their own. They would likewise be free to collaborate on improved software that would unlock the potential of the Hub hardware or purchase such software from a competitor to Nest.

Other companies in Nest’s position, though, have alleged that such conduct violates the DMCA’s Section 1201. Last year, for example, video game companies told the Librarian of Congress that it would violate Section 1201 for a customer to tweak their game so it keeps working after the company stops supporting it. Though we don’t agree that this tweaking constitutes a violation, we argued that in any case an exemption should be made to Section 1201 so that it is clear players may keep video games alive. The effort was successful for “local gameplay.”

Home automation hubs were not on the agenda for the rulemaking last year. This means that, if the Revolv Hub includes an access control that needs to be circumvented to get at its code, then tinkerers who want to keep their $300 devices alive will need to operate in the legal grey area created by conflicting court decisions about the scope of Section 1201.

We work to improve the law and protect your right to tinker with technology. But there’s another way to push back against untrustworthy devices, and that’s refusing to buy electronics and software that prioritize the manufacturer’s wishes above your own. Certainly Alphabet, which owns both Nest and Google, is going to have trouble selling its hardware in the future if it doesn’t provide customers some assurance that they won’t be left in the cold like those who rely on the Revolv Hub. By Kit Walsh, Staff Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation

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  44 comments for “Google Tells Customers “Ownership” is now an Illusion

  1. polecat
    April 6, 2016 at 4:14 pm

    GOOGLE to the plebes: GO POUND SAND !

  2. walter map
    April 6, 2016 at 4:30 pm

    Because they’re not satisfied until you’re not satisfied.

  3. Paulo
    April 6, 2016 at 4:36 pm

    This is why I always tell people the benefits of highly technical/complex electric cars (EV) and self-driving cars will never work for the common purchaser and society at large. The manufacturers have a captive audience for maintenance and upgrades, and they will squeeze until there is nothing left.

    Of course I always get the boots taken to me by the techno-cornucopians who fervently believe more complexity will allow more resource consumption and BAU lite to continue indefinitely.

    Lose debt, buy local, and simplify for a resilient and flexible future, imho. Complexity and automation is the antithesis of that list. Collapse ahead of the rush.


  4. Dan Romig
    April 6, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    Could this be brought to ‘Smart TVs’? A friend of mine asked about his new potential TV purchase, “Why not a Smart TV?”

    The set manufactures are 1984 Big Brother with the way they use voice commands, but if that’s not bad enough, would/could they follow Nest Labs’ precedent?

    Thank goodness that I am able to enjoy a dumb TV; you know, I turn it on and off all by myself!

    • walter map
      April 6, 2016 at 5:16 pm

      My rule of thumb is to never buy a device that’s smarter than you are. Of course, if everybody did this the tech industry would collapse, leaving everyone to wonder how anybody lived before they invented silicon.

      Thoreau warned us not to become tools of our tools, but it’s easy to suppose that Walden is conscientiously avoided in your corporate charter schools, dedicated as they are to precisely the opposite proposition.

      • Zoo keeper
        April 7, 2016 at 7:03 am

        Lock yourself in prehistoric cave and wait for dooms day.

        • walter map
          April 7, 2016 at 11:43 am

          Ah yes, the wine cellar. Death, where is thy sting?

          I should have shorted your dot-com bubble more heavily.

    • Petunia
      April 6, 2016 at 5:17 pm

      We had to buy a new tv when the old one, 3 years old, didn’t work using the new cable company box. The cable company won’t come out and tell you their box doesn’t connect to the cheaper/older flat screens, because those tv’s don’t always use the full hdmi specification. You get a picture but no audio.

      Being abandoned by a manufacturer is the reason I never buy Sony or IBM. They are notorious for moving on and leaving their customers stranded. Now you can add Google to the list.

    • polecat
      April 6, 2016 at 8:38 pm

      Why own a TV, smart or otherwise, at all…It’s commercialized propaganda 24/7……..

      At least w/ the internet (so far) one can parse through most of the noise, and perhaps find SOME truth as to the state of the world…..but TV, cable or otherwise, is a wasteland!

      • Petunia
        April 6, 2016 at 8:42 pm

        I like to keep up with the current state of propaganda being peddled by the MSM. They have even co-opted CSPAN which is still the only thing really worth watching on tv.

      • Dan Romig
        April 6, 2016 at 9:32 pm


        • Bobcat
          April 7, 2016 at 9:26 am

          Sports are politicized and corrupt just like everything else. Certain teams are favored by biased or crooked officials. Certain teams are allowed to go un-punished for wholesale rule infractions or outright fraud as though they are too big to fail. It mirrors the corruption we see on Wall Street. Occassionally, the best team wins but all too often, the team that is supposed to win does. There’s even the same kind of punditry surrounding sports.

        • Petunia
          April 7, 2016 at 10:23 am

          Sports are all subsidized by the taxpayers and I don’t want to encourage them by watching. Besides I can’t afford to go to any games.

    • Mark
      April 7, 2016 at 2:44 am

      i have one, but have never set up the SMART part of it nor is it connected to the internet-

  5. Michael Gorback
    April 6, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    “Lifetime” updates are for the lifetime of the guarantor.

    Dick Cheney had the wireless communication feature of his pacemaker disabled due to fear of assassination by hackers.

    A while back someone managed to hack an insulin pump and showed how it could be instructed to give an overdose.

    Last year hackers demonstrated how they could take control of a Jeep Cherokee.

    • Petunia
      April 6, 2016 at 5:23 pm

      My favorite IOT story is the one about the guy whose refrigerator was hijacked by a spammer and was being used as a server by a hacker. The refrigerator owner found out when the FBI showed up at his house. Funny.

      • ERG
        April 7, 2016 at 6:41 am

        That’s where Hillary stored her State Department emails!

    • TheDona
      April 6, 2016 at 5:28 pm

      Hacking cars and insulin pumps = bad.

      Hacking the Panama Papers = good.

      Hacking Dick Cheney’s pacemaker = Did not know a stone needed a pacemaker.

      • d
        April 7, 2016 at 1:11 am


        What makes it worse is that so many like you, think the panama hack was good as they dont like the victims.

        If the Panam hack is good, so is filming you in the shower, and selling the film.

        Same thing. different class of victim.

        • j
          April 7, 2016 at 2:05 am

          I can’t agree with you at all. The Panama papers was a case of exposing the misdeeds of evildoers and I regard that as legitimate. I forget who it was who first said that, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for the good to do nothing!”

        • d
          April 7, 2016 at 9:02 am

          I always get that one mixed in Churchill and Disraeli, as both used variations of it.

          However the majority of those exposed in this event will not have been doing any evil, they will simply be trying to preserve their privacy and their property.

          Their only crime, being vaguely wealthy, and desiring some basic privacy, in an Envious. GIVE ME FOR FREE, RICH MAN, world.

        • joe bloggs
          April 7, 2016 at 5:56 am

          It is whistleblowing not theft. These papers expose large scale corruption and illicit behaviour. Whilst there may be some legitimate dealings that should not have been made public, this law firm has seemingly served to hide the dealings and tax evasion of wealthy elites. The public interest in exposing these nefarious activities outweighs the right to privacy.

        • d
          April 7, 2016 at 8:49 am

          Whistle blowing involves an employee and illegal or dangerous activity.

          There was, and is, no dangerous or illegal activity. By the firm the Data was stolen from.

          Public interest, does not put thieves above the law.

          There was no employee, this straight out theft. A million times worse than snowden, who was at least spying directly, or indirectly, for the Russian state, on the US State.

          “this law firm has seemingly served to hide the dealings and tax evasion of wealthy elites. The public interest in exposing these nefarious activities outweighs the right to privacy.”

          That is the deliberate impression presented by the Scum media news makers, as usual in these “Exposures” not all the documents used will, be genuine.

          If you have the wright to steal my private company’s data, and make it public, claiming public interest, as you can make some money from it. Whilst, Deliberately, Maliciously,Vindictively, harming people I provided a perfectly legal service to. And My business, Simply as you envy and dislike my Customers.

          Many of the people, exposed and slandered in this Data Theft, and exposure of private information for sensationalist media profit. Are not even avoiding or evading tax.

          Their only crime is to be wealthy, and want privacy.

          A basic human wright ,you seem to think YOU have the WRIGHT to deny.


          The exposed have the wright. To Have someone give you a third eye, where ever they find you and your family, when ever, they chose.

          Exposing the dealings of the Putin clan, might get you dead. If you turn up, in the wrong place.

          Exposing the dealings of the Xi clan will get you and your family dead. Where ever you run to, on this round planet.

          And the scum gutter sensationalist media who did this, deserve that, even if it is. Ultimately, a US payback for snowden.

          There is a major difference between, whistle blowing, and breach of privacy for profit.

          This Panama Papers event, the way it is being presented, is pure, Vindictive, Malicious, Envious, Breach of Privacy, for profit.

          You dont have the wright, to profit from, or have knowledge of my private business.

          One of the lowest forms of Scum on the planet, is that which sticks its nose into everybody private affairs, then runs round the place spreading the gained and embellished information, for advantage or gain.

          Invasion of privacy has gone to far, the only way to stop it. Is to eliminate those who profit from it, permanently.

          Public interest, never, ever, justifies Theft.

        • Michael Gorback
          April 7, 2016 at 10:51 pm

          I agree with d. The ends don’t justify the means. If it’s okay for me to hack your computer to expose your criminal behavior, it’s okay for me to break into your filing cabinet at your house to expose your criminal behavior.

  6. NY Geezer
    April 6, 2016 at 5:09 pm

    My oldest computer runs on microsoft’s Vista software. For several months, every time I boot up, I receive the message that Microsoft will soon stop supporting Vista.

    I assume that only means that I will no longer receive updates from Microsoft at the point that Microsoft stops supporting Vista. Since I only periodically download updates, I know that the computer works as well with and without updates. Updates do nothing to enhance operation, so I tend not to download them for months at a a time.

    The ownership of things that old might still be real.

    • Petunia
      April 6, 2016 at 5:35 pm

      Windows 10 sucks, you are not missing anything. That’s the reason they gave it away for free.

      • Tom
        April 6, 2016 at 6:15 pm

        The same story with the Mac OS line after Mountain Lion. The only thing MSFT and AAPL have going for them is a type of technology fashion consciousness that demands the new thing just because it’s new.

        • Mary
          April 7, 2016 at 10:15 am

          Boy is that the truth. About 6 weeks ago downloaded El Capitan. Glitch after glitch until Mail completely froze. Ten hours on the phone with “experts” who had no expertise. My guess–Apple had to make lot of new hires because the new OS system so bad. And policy change means you can’t make an appointment at your local store Genius Bar because they only deal with hardware problems, not software.

          Finally went in the store, threw myself on their mercy and got to the Genius Bar. (Please, you gotta help this white-haired old lady.) Their solution: erase everything, reinstall the operating system, then restore data from my backup. Takes hours, but problem finally solved….I hope.

          This is our future: begging 20 year olds to make our technology work.

      • Keith
        April 6, 2016 at 6:56 pm

        10 and 8 drove me into the arms of Ubuntu by Linux. It is freeware with its own office compatible with MS Office (which has become quite a privacy/content control threat through Office 365). It has been working wonderfully. After one update with 10, my laptop would sleep every 5 minutes, even when I was using it. It also knocked out my wireless ability. It seems whenever MS makes a new product, it only makes it worse.

        • Petunia
          April 7, 2016 at 10:30 am

          You can migrate all you documents to Libre Office or Open Office. They will both allow you to read and modify them. They are both free.

    • Keith
      April 6, 2016 at 6:57 pm

      Better off, 10 forces updates that typically make the system more worse off than before.

  7. TheDona
    April 6, 2016 at 8:01 pm

    Why does anyone buy a first gen anything? Dumb!

    Google self driving cars….”Sorry we don’t support your 2 year old car anymore and your support ends in 5,4,3,2,1.”

    The Cloud has me spooked as it means all of your information can be eradicated or held hostage.

    I am a Science fiction lover but not a science fiction liver.

    • polecat
      April 6, 2016 at 8:46 pm

      yeah…..gotta watch out for those ‘repo-men’ ……. they certainly are ‘organs of despair’ :(

    • Petunia
      April 6, 2016 at 8:46 pm

      The cloud is a hackers paradise. All the customer info, the financial info, and company documentation all in one easy to access place. Not to mention that the service provider now “owns” your business and you paid them to take it.

  8. Shawn
    April 6, 2016 at 9:20 pm

    Go free, Go open-source and Go pirate and never look back.

  9. Lee
    April 6, 2016 at 9:30 pm

    Ever had a car serviced? See that “check engine’ light?

    Pretty soon cars will be made so that you’ll have to have them serviced by an authorized service department on the schedule that they deem necessary or your car will be disabled.

    You’ll need a special code to be input into the car by the service department so that you can drive it for the next 6 or 9 or 12 months.

    Pretty soon no more changing your own oil, filters, or plugs.

    By the way, that Mercedes Maybach here in Oz will set you back A$477,000 compared to around US$189,000 in the USA.

    • Petunia
      April 7, 2016 at 10:34 am

      You are absolutely correct. This is part of the reason they don’t let Tesla sell out of a dealer network in most states. They want a captive market. You think you really own anything in America, you don’t. If they control it, you don’t own it.

  10. MC
    April 7, 2016 at 3:17 am

    I always like to say I have no problem with some practices… as long as everything is written into the contract and price reflects the value offered.

    If a manufacturer wants stop supporting a product after two years, fine, but I want it written in my contract and I want that product to be priced as to reflect after two years the only value left will be the scrap one.

    Then there are all the shady practices, like Facebook’s “shadow profiles”, whose details are sketchy and kept as much as possible from the public eye to avoid legislative interventions nobody really wants.

    Which brings me to the most important point: law codes have failed to keep pace with technical advancements, sometimes spectacularly so. Laws have to be scrapped together in a hurry by legislators who are sometimes indifferent to the issue, sometimes susceptible to lobbying and very often so technically illiterate they have to ask their interns to check emails for them because they have no idea how to do it.
    This leaves the door wide open to certain companies if not to abuse their position, at very least to move in that shady area where right and wrong are defined by who can afford the best law firms, not by courts and laws, let alone common sense, the foundation of law in all civilized countries.

    To this it must be added often governments seem to have an interest in leaving gaping holes in the legislation for their own ends. Encryption, a vital tool when sensitive data are involved, has been bashed mercilessly at every turn with the old mantras “the terrorists use it” and “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”, never mind the terrorists who hit Paris and Brussels appear to have relied more on old fashioned secrecy than state of the art encryption and that there are perfectly legal data one may want to keep safe, such as R&D and confidential memos.

  11. Bobcat
    April 7, 2016 at 9:42 am

    Some observers think we may be headed for a societal reset; that we may be forced to revert to a much simpler mode of living which would have broad and likely cruel implications. Greed driven technology run amuck such as this will only hasten the onset of such a reboot.

    Consider what happened after the fall of Rome. Many technologies disappeared as mankind plunged into a dark age. It was 1400 years before most people had running water and basic sanitation, things we take for granted today.

    • Petunia
      April 7, 2016 at 10:39 am

      People are so technically illiterate today, that it is extremely possible that in a catastrophe of some kind, many innovations could be lost. I also think that many techies out there could be contributing more but aren’t because they fear the consequences of their innovations.

  12. Jonathan
    April 7, 2016 at 10:12 pm

    Forgot IoT devies, if you believe Google acts for the interest of the general public just because of their mantra of “Do not evil” instead of data mine the crap out of your online activities to sell for the highest bidder for a buck, I can only say dream the fuck on.

  13. wholy1
    April 8, 2016 at 10:30 am

    “Ownership” has/will be ALWAYS an “illusion” to the “awake/integrated”.
    Consider the following argument: each Man/[wo]Man “manifested” in to the world – but NOT of it – enters with what “possessions”? Likewise, upon each and every said individual’s “separation” from the “organic vessel”, what “possessions” accompany? The Lord both “giveth and taketh away”. So, what is [should be] each Man’s role in the “Original Trust” established between each unique and special Man “manifested”: Benefactor/Grantor, Trustee or Beneficiary? Understanding each individual’s TRUE “role” and seeking to conduct One’s Self accordingly is the “Assignment” of the “Living”!

  14. wholy1
    April 8, 2016 at 10:35 am

    What does that “say” about any “association/contract” with Google?
    Get it?!

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