Companies use sneaky software and legal tricks to get you to keep paying for things you've already bought. (2023)

Andy Harding has been running his small electronics repair shop, Salem Techsperts, in Salem, Massachusetts for the past eight years. He runs a steady business repairing phones for university students and nurses at the nearby hospital. But shortly after the iPhone 13 launched in September 2021, Harding noticed a minor change to Apple's software that he thought could shut down his little shop for good.

One of Harding's most frequent repairs, and one of his biggest income generators, is repairing cracked iPhone screens. But Apple added a new feature to the latest model that could detect when the screen was changed, including screen repairs, and then disable the feature.facial recognition function. The change scaredowners of many workshopsinklusive Harding.

"People pay a lot of money for a FaceID phone and they want it to work," Harding told me recently. "Cracked iPhone screens are the number one repair for shops like mine. I couldn't survive without that part of the business."

possibly,Apple released a software updatewhich allowed FaceID to work after a screen repair. But the phone still warns users aboutthe screen is not originalunless they use an "Apple Authorized" repair provider. But why does anyone need Apple's blessing to fix their phone? You've already paid for it: you own the phone, you should be able to fix it on your terms.

Apple is not the only company that places restrictions on the products thatpeople have already bought. As more of the devices in our lives are powered by software, manufacturers are beginning to exert more control over their products, even after the customer has taken them home. In some cases, companies force customers to useisrepair services, will disable the product if they attempt to repair it themselves. In other cases, companiesrequire people to pay for an ongoing subscriptionto access the basic properties of the products.

Modern software allows manufacturers to bind the users of their products forever. Companies are just starting to monetize this control with dystopian methods and the help of America's unbalanced copyright laws. But there are ways consumers and lawmakers can push back against this company's attempt to redefine what it means to "own" a product.

You bought it, but you don't really 'own' it

Imagine the beginning of a hypothetical summer Monday, sometime in the future. Turn on your coffee maker remotely ($5 per month for the app to schedule brewing in advance and an additional $25 forrecurring deliveryofkompatible pods) while using your stationary bike for a quick workout ($30 per month to access classes). When you are ready to go to the office,smart termostatautomatically turns off the air conditioning (a $10/month feature) while you use an app on your phone toremote start your car(which will cost you $20 per month). What if you want to fix some of it? Put away your screwdriver, because you'll have to go to the manufacturer for even a minor adjustment.

While this may sound far-fetched, the explosion of subscription services for consumer products brings this scenario closer to reality. The global e-commerce subscription market is expected to rise from around $73 billion in 2021 toabout $904 billion in 2026. In addition to the proliferation of food delivery boxes and streaming services, in many cases companies make access to what you have bought conditional on your payment: No subscription, and you have a block that fills up. For businesses, the lure of subscriptions is pretty straightforward: a steady stream of revenue and a lot more money collected from your customers over time. While software development and maintenance comes with its own set of costs, overhead costs are much lower than hardware manufacturing and give companies more opportunities to upsell, which means recurring revenue. They come with huge profit margins.

Companies use a myriad of tactics to keep customers engaged after they purchase a product. One tactic is to use technical sensors to prevent unauthorized changes to the product. Take the experience of American farmers: Newer equipment such as tractors and combines often require special tools, which manufacturers offer only to authorized dealers. Coupled with highly technical computer systems, this makes it almost impossible for farmers to repair their own vehicles. My organization, the Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG, calculated that repair restrictions cost farmers aAn additional $4.2 billion each yearr, with $1.2 billion going to local authorized dealers and another $3 billion lost due to equipment downtime. Similarly, Tesla's software can detect andlimit the characteristics of car owners that the teamnot from the company that the aftermarket tows (whereasTesla's own hitches are sold out).

In other cases, companies have tried to block consumers from accessing certain features unless they pay first. Car companies have taken the lead in driving this trend. Mercedes-Benz and BMW made headlines for charging users monthly feesbetter accelerationanduse of seat heating, respectively. Already bought the seat heater (and the luxury car that contains it), but now you have to pay for the right to turn it on?Printing companies have used similar tacticsfor people to sign up for subscriptions that remotely monitor ink levels but can also shut down your machine if you don't pay. Imagine if you had to pay the contractor who built your house a monthly fee to make your light switches work!

Finally, the manufacturers use internet connection to monitor and control what you are doing. If they find you've done something they don't like (perhaps hot plugging your heated seat), they can remove or disable other features. Tesla has been accused ofrecall load capacity,fast charging compatibilityand other functions externally. Consumers are afraid to do something that producers don't like, knowing that they may be punished.

We need to end the continuous control of our behavior by a distant producer who can approve or disapprove the choices we make with the products we buy.

You might think there should be a law against policies that make people "buy" and "rent" things at the same time. But existing laws workagainstconsumers, allowing producers to control what they can and cannot do. For example, overly broad copyright laws can, in the hands of overzealous manufacturers, make it a copyright violation to bypass technical systems to modify or repair your own device. HeDigital Millennium Copyright Actit was meant to prevent people from pirating music, games or movies. But manufacturers have argued that the DMCA applies to software or firmware needed to repair or operate a piece of hardware. This overly broad definition of intellectual property has been exploited to prevent independent remedies and has redefined consumers' relationship with the goods they purchase. Under this interpretation, if the manufacturer installs a digital safeguard around the heated seats, bypassing it can essentially be considered hacking. If it's confusing, it's because it's stupid.

Manufacturers also writeclose user agreementsthat contains language to prevent customers from tampering with the product. Most people have come across long "Terms of Use" documents filled with legal information that applies to pages and pages. In most cases, consumers simply check "agree" with little or no knowledge of what they are signing. A 2017 Deloitte survey of 2,000 consumers found that91% click to acceptwith terms and conditions without reading them.

But within those dense documents are rules that prevent people from fixing their products or allow the company to take ownership if it doesn't approve of how customers use the product. Sneaking these terms and conditions out to people undermines basic consumer rights.

Tinker, tailor, service, mod.

I believe in truth in advertising. If you want to sell something to someone, sell it to them. If you want to rent something to someone, rent it. Tying their future purchases to a secret "agreement" that you've built into technology they don't know about is misleading. Not to mention that fixing and repairing are American traditions. The "if it's broke, fix it" ethos has other benefits too. Repair teaches critical skills, saves consumers money, helps reduce product waste and obsolescence. Retouching and repair also lead to product innovations that can benefit everyone.

There are solutions to protect property. The first is right-to-appeal legislation, which I have worked to pass in several states over the past five years or more. The right to repair requires that manufacturers make the necessary parts, tools and information available to consumers on reasonable terms to carry out repairs. It also says that these parts and tools cannot require remote authorization to work, meaning you no longer need to ask for permission to perform repairs. So far in 2023,28 staterhas considered some form of right to appeal legislation, and Congress has upheldmanyhearingsin the subject. Legislatures have already passed laws in Massachusetts, Colorado and New York, and we're just getting started.

Another step is to clarify that the repair is not a copyright infringement. HeFreedom to Repair Act, introduced last year, would provide a broad and permanent exemption for repair activities under copyright law. In addition to passing new laws, we must enforce the laws we already have on the books. It is supposed to be a violation of antitrust laws to create one"bindings" arrangementthat forces someone who buys a product to buy other products or services. Anyone who owns a printer and has tried to find cheaper ink knows that this does not apply effectively.

The US Federal Trade Commission and the US Department of Justice should crack down on embedded software that forces product owners to pay monthly fees to use the hardware they own. Regulators should also crack down on toxic legal terms included in user license agreements, as well as banning certain anti-consumer terms fromagreements on the use of credit cards.

In the digital age, we need new consumer protections that reflect our agency as product owners. We need to be able to make things right without fear of retribution. We should not be forced to give up our rights when we buy something. We need to end the continuous control of our behavior by a distant producer who can approve or disapprove the choices we make with the products we buy.

Until then, like Andy Harding of Salem Techsperts, we'll be nervously waiting to see what we'll lose when the latest "innovation" hits the shelves.

proctor nathanis the senior director of the US Public Interest Research Group's (PIRG) Right to Repair campaign.

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