The latest technology can be expensive, but knowing that the thing you bought is yours forever could take some of the weight out of a four-figure purchase. The problem is that you didn’t buy the whole device and in some circumstances you’ll end up holding a useless lump of plastic.
There are many proprietary laws that protect consumers and define their rights. In contrast, there are also laws that protect corporate interests, loopholes and gray areas that allow businesses to maintain an incredible amount of control over their products. Here are a few reasons why you don’t really “own” the technology you paid good money for.
Business terms are important
At first glance, selling may seem relatively simple. You hand over some money, you get an item, and that item is now yours. But if you scratch the surface, things get a lot more complicated. When setting up or updating your device, you’ll likely skim through a long document or two terms of service. Although no one, including me, bothers to read these things, the information they contain is quite important.
There are some limitations. No term in the contract, which is a document with terms and conditions, can be contrary to the laws of the country in which it is signed. The law takes precedence and would immediately render that clause, or in some cases the entire contract, invalid. So there’s no chance of accidentally selling yourself into slavery when you agree to one of Samsung’s software updates. However, some things in the terms and conditions may concern you. You may be giving the company rights to your images, allowing them to remove content you’ve paid for at will, and even allowing them to lock your device if they want to.
A big part of the problem is the software
If you buy something as simple as a hammer, the manufacturer has little say in what you do with it, and no way to enforce any of its rules. Unfortunately, technology companies have an easier time maintaining control over their products due to the nature of the products themselves. When you buy a new phone, you can think about it in terms of components. You’re buying a 32-megapixel camera, a Snapdragon processor, 8GB of RAM, etc. You’ll actually own those components, but it’s not a phone.
What you’re buying when you buy a phone, a laptop, or even a TV is something that can be run by the company that made its software. How big of a problem it is varies from company to company. Apple is known for being pretty tight-lipped with its code, while Android is a bit more open. But the important thing to note is that you don’t own the software the device runs on – you’re only allowed to use it. The terms may change at any time and the company that owns the software may withdraw its permission at will.
What you may own is an expensive paperweight
What happens when you have a piece of equipment that you actually own and nothing else? In some circumstances, you’ll just be holding a useless lump of metal and plastic. One good example is the Oculus Quest 2. Until recently, Meta forced you to tie your $399 headset and game library to an active Facebook account. In Meta’s eyes, it was one account, and what affected the account on one device affected all. So if you happened to get permanently banned or your Facebook account was deleted, your game library would be left with it and you would no longer be able to access your quest 2. It didn’t matter if you behaved like a good citizen during your stay. headphones and the ban comes from something you typed on your phone or laptop; The meta would still block your Quest.
It was even worse for owners of the original Quest. The headset was on sale before Meta decided to make Facebook accounts mandatory. People who bought Quest before Meta made the change were told they would have to connect an account or lose access to their device. It’s worth noting that the deadline Quest users were given was January 2023, and Meta has since removed Facebook’s requirements. Even though it eventually came out, it’s still an example of how tech companies can retroactively decide who can use the devices they sell.
In theory, you could delete your game library and restart your Quest 2 with a new Facebook account. But bypassing the ban by creating a new account is against the Meta Terms, and if caught, that account would also be permanently banned. Meta recently removed the need for a Facebook account from their Quest headsets, so it’s not that big of a deal. But it shows how much power tech companies retain over the products they “sell” you.
You can’t do whatever you want with an iPhone
If your purely mechanical mower breaks, you can go to a hardware store and choose from a selection of parts. A variety of parts can work with your lawnmower, allowing you to balance price and quality before you buy the one that’s right for you and proceed with your repair. It’s not that simple with an iPhone. If you do not buy official Apple parts, the functionality of your phone may be limited. The off-brand part you bought may be identical in almost every way to an official Apple part, but if your phone doesn’t believe it came from an official source, Apple will punish you for it.
Despite Apple’s years of fighting right-to-repair legislation and its history of making it as difficult as possible for customers to repair at home, things may be getting better. The company has announced that it is launching a home repair program to make basic repairs easier for its customers. There’s no set start date for the program, it’s limited in scope, and you’ll likely still be using Apple-approved parts — but it’s a step in the right direction. While things may be getting better for iPhone owners, it’s getting worse for people with high-end lawnmowers and tractors. John Deere is facing legal battles after putting similar software locks on its equipment.
So what can we do?
As we mentioned before, a lot of leveraged companies are based on their ownership of the software and the fact that you can use it. If you want to take control of your technology, there are a few things you can do—though none of them are ideal. Many companies put a lot of emphasis on “customer experience” and I’ll point to Apple again because it’s the best example of that.
Love them or hate them, Apple products are very user-friendly, integrate seamlessly with other Apple products, and are designed with the needs of their core users in mind. One could argue that Apple can get away with a lot of less palatable promotions because of how attached people are to its products. If you want to break away and take ownership of your technology, you’ll burn bridges with companies like Apple and lose some of that experience.
Android users are not taking it easy either. Google’s terms describe their right to terminate your account at any time. The termination criteria listed in the terms are very vague and you have no real recourse if he decides to ban you from his services. The impact of a Google account ban varies from person to person depending on how much they rely on Google services. But if you have Android, your phone will be severely limited without an active Google account.
Samsung has the power to remotely lock any of its TVs. While the company claims it’s only used to fight crime by smashing stolen TVs, it could theoretically be used on an innocent person’s idiot box. However, the Korean company is making some strides in the right-to-repair space as it has partnered with iFixit to help customers repair their devices at home.
To truly own your technology, you must use open source software or “jailbreak” your gadgets. These actions include operating in a legal gray area and drastic inconvenience. Even though Windows is sometimes annoying, it’s still less of a pain than Linux. Using an open source operating system requires some technical know-how, and getting software or hardware up and running with it can be a lengthy process.
With the jailbreak, part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act may be illegal, but Apple is unlikely to make it a police matter. However, it will void any warranties you have and the company will refuse to deal with a customer jailbroken device. You will be behind on software updates; if something breaks, you’re on your own. Your phone will also be exposed to several security risks, so go this route at your own risk.
Things can change on a larger scale
Consumers are not completely helpless. Many countries, including most of Europe and the United States, have a “right to correct” factory or ledger accounts. If you don’t like the idea of a company telling you what you can and can’t do with an item you’ve paid for, consider writing to your political representatives. You can either voice your support for pending right-to-repair legislation or demand stronger consumer protections.
Politics takes time, but there are products you can buy while you wait for things to change. Some companies have discovered a gap in the market and now offer easy-to-repair modular devices. Framework notebooks offer a maintenance experience closer to desktop computers. Users can easily replace parts that are broken or need an upgrade. This line of thinking is not limited to computers; Modular phones are also on the market. The Fairphone is probably the best current example that offers a modern smartphone experience while being incredibly easy to repair or upgrade.