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What is Your Reaction to Tethered Technologies?

After reading part II of Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet and how to stop it”, I am very curious to know how others in our class have reacted to the whole idea of tethered appliances and the kinds of remote access and control over content and privacy technology companies have – and how we view the role of the law in regards to possibilities presented by the tethered appliance use on a mass scale. Because for me, I see that with the whole advent of “cloud computing”, and the rise of “internet services” and devices that rely entirely on services that have access to devices at all times (such as smart phones, for example), we are moving more and more towards a tethered reality, where non-tethered options seem to be receding into the distant horizon, because the consumer market demanding non-tethered options is shrinking rapidly.

And why is it shrinking rapidly? Largely, I think, because tethered technologies are packaged in such a desirable way and provide such desirable surface capabilities (like the ipad, for example) that consumers become hooked on products because of the desirability of the product and its surface capabilities, without being informed (either through their own research or by the company) of what deeper level tethering they are committing to – and what rights they are giving up.  Added to this, in our own lifetimes, we can see a trend in technological development toward making technological devices “easy” for the masses to use, that it is not necessary anymore for an average user to understand how a device works at a deeper level (i.e. you don’t have to learn command line scripts in dos in order to get a computer to do anything anymore).

Zittrain outlines several ways in which tethered  technologies can became mechanisms by which laws can be easily enforced through preemption, specific injunction, and surveillance. And he goes on to talk about how these kinds of enforcement can became executable “Without Rule of Law” – basically, without several individuals within the justice system dedicated to preserving citizen’s rights and freedoms getting involved and deciding if a certain kind of enforcement is lawful, and then giving explicit permission for a kind of enforcement to be carried out. Zittrain uses TiVo technology as an example of a company accessing its devices remotely and changing things inside the device once it is already within the hands of the consumer. As I was reading this, I was reminded of a issue that occurred in 2009 with the Amazon Kindle, where after getting in a copyright dispute with a publisher of George Orwell’s books, the Amazon went into user’s kindles and remotely deleted any electronic versions of Orwell’s books without asking permission of the consumers, only notifying them afterwards when they reimbursed users of the purchase price. So users woke up one morning, and their Orwell e-books had vanished. In an article on Boing Boing  by Cory Doctorow about this whole issue, the Electronic Frontier Foundation was quoted, and very aptly described my own response to this whole scenario:

“if Amazon didn’t have the rights to sell the e-books in the first place, the infringement happened when the books were sold. Remote deletion doesn’t change that, and it’s not an infringement for the Kindle owner simply to read the book. Can you imagine a brick-and-mortar bookstore chasing you home, entering your house, and pulling a book from your shelf after you paid good money for it? (Nor, for that matter, does Amazon reserve any “remote deletion” right the Kindle “terms of service”.)”

And how ironic that it was a debate over books by Orwell as well – and that Orwell e-books were essentially erased by “Big Brother”. (Check out the Limerick commentary in the Boing Boing article – it is quite genius and awesome). Granted, Amazon did acknowledge later that this deletion was a bad idea (as this NY Times article points out), but they would not reverse the deletion once acknowledging it was a bad idea, and the fact that it happened in the first place is just outrageous!

Ideas of remote access and remote enforcement really scare me. As Doctorow later stated, “The most secure device spec for a device is one in which it is not designed to enforce policy against its owner, period. Devices might still be subverted into attacking their owners, but this will always be more likely to take place if the designers created a ‘feature’ that is supposed to do this.” Why are we allowing and supporting the creation of technology that has built in back doors? And as Zittrain pointed out later in the chapter through discussing the views of James Boyle, “if a society wants technological progress and the associated economic benefits, one must be prepared to accept some measure of social liberalization made possible with that technology.”

But it doesn’t seem like society is really demanding this social liberalization that should come with technological progress. Maybe I am being pessimistic, but it seems to me that we are moving into a era where governments and lawmakers are not making laws to protect against invasion of privacy and unlawful censorship through tethered appliances and the internet – instead, they are allowing overly restrictive, invasive, abusive measures of enforcement to be carried out over tethered networks  in the name of certain laws (such as copyright law in the case of the kindle) that threaten much more fundamental ideas of freedom in society. Why are there no laws or acts being created that protect consumers against abusive invasion of privacy, surveillance, and remote control of content through tethered networks? It seems like all the laws being created and proposed lately are designed to create more control over users, instead of protecting their freedom.

So I am curious – am I the only one for whom Zittrain’s warnings against and discussions of tethered technologies resonate so strongly?

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5 Responses

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  1. Janice says

    You have each captured the Zittrain points quite summarily, so I will not go into a detailed rehashing. I just want to add a few thoughts that keep re-occuring to me about rights and responsiblilitites and how, with the advance of one, there should be an expectation of the other. Most bothersome, though, is just how easily we do fall into the trap of modern conveniences; which one of us in our busy xistence is not seeking some form of ease in getting to what/where/whom we seek? In addtition, bothersome to me is that for those of us who deliberately contemplate these issues, there may be some hope; to the extent that we are tireless. What of those less prone to “read up”, who sign-on gladly, feeling that they have entered the new world bravely? And, how to get folks to realize our cries of “WARNING” as other than just nay-syers who would revolutionize??
    Tethered and bothered in NYC, The World…

  2. Laura Kane says

    (Accidentally hit ‘post’ before finishing my post!) I’ve read recently that companies require employees to join the company facebook page, and new hires are expected to give their new bosses unfettered access to their social networking sites so that they can be ‘vetted’ for the job. For those of us that do research, our google searches are logged, and our search results are largely determined by prior search history. This is a weird and scary thing, but it’s very effective at giving us the relevant search results we are looking for.

  3. Laura Kane says

    All of these posts touch upon concerns I have as well, especially the idea of a tethered existence. I am definitely guilty of storing tons of documents, photos and emails in the google ‘cloud’ – mainly for convenience, but also for ‘reliable’ storage (because I was a computer technician for so many years, I have seen first-hand how terribly, horribly unreliable hard drives are and how often they crash. Most of my data is back up on at least two drives and some cloud storage). I say ‘reliable’ because, yes, web-based storage is more immune to personal storage crashes, however, the Orwell example perfectly illustrates how insecure online storage is. At any moment, I could be locked out of my google accounts for ‘security reasons’ or whatever excuse google might give to deny me access to my information – a situation more grim than a crashed hard drive. More importantly, the ‘prying eyes’ threat looms large – google has been able to create (albeit not wholly accurate) profiles for each user based on the data it has already complied from them.
    The unfortunate thing is that this trend will most likely never reverse. The tethering of ourselves and our information to the internet is something that has become a necessity for those seeking employment, those interested in maintaining friendships, and those of us who do research.

  4. ria banerjee says


    Your comment resonates very strongly with me too, and I’d like to offer another example that has been driving me up the wall. Is anyone familiar with the new Verizon (I think it is) ad that shows a young working girl with a smart phone who is very busy in the mornings and forgets to feed her dog? She has a feeder hooked up to her smart phone, so when she finally remembers, in the middle of a meeting, she presses a button to turn on the food for her puppy. This is supposed to be a great thing. I tried to look for the ad online, but it didn’t turn up after a few quick google searches, and really, it’s not worth it. What bothers me loads and loads is not that such things happen (who hasn’t forgotten super-important things in the morning rush?), but that now it’s ok to forget to feed your dog and keep him locked in the house all day? And it’s cool to not be attentive at your work meeting, and check up on any other hundred random things? And, worst of all, to have your technology “help” you do this? What if you lost your phone? What if someone took it and messed with it? I had not heard of the Orwell thing before, but, really, could the irony have been more “delicious”/disheartening? Anyone remember the scene in Wall-E where the captain and his commanding computer are shown in a sequence, the computer gaining in size and importance in each picture until we all end up pacified blubbering idiots watching TV in easy chairs all day?

  5. Denver Gingerich says

    These warnings against tethered technologies resonate very strongly with me, too. Not only is it dangerous to give companies (who are usually loyal to shareholders, not consumers) extrajudicial powers over your device (by allowing them to arbitrarily remove data or functionality and to do so remotely), it is perhaps even more dangerous to allow such companies to be the sole stewards of your private data (as you alluded to).

    It used to be that people used the email account(s) provided by their ISP. The ISP would hold their mail temporarily on the ISP’s computer, which was usually in the same legal jurisdiction as the customer (often within a 1-hour drive), and then the customer would periodically download that mail to their computer, deleting it from the ISP’s computer in the process (this deletion was encouraged because ISPs normally provided room for just a hundred messages or so on the ISP’s computer). From that point on, the email would reside solely on the customer’s computer (and in any backups they made), making it very difficult for anyone to read without the customer’s consent or a court order.

    These days people tend to use webmail services like Gmail or Yahoo! Mail instead of ISP-provided email services. Most people use a browser and/or smartphone to access their webmail; in both cases, the email itself remains on the webmail provider’s computer, though copies may also be made in the browser or on the smartphone. Webmail providers are offering more and more space, making people less likely to delete mail stored by their webmail provider. These webmail providers store emails in completely different legal jurisdictions from the user (at least in a different state, often in a different country). So obtaining access to emails by guessing a password or issuing a national security letter (like a court order, but with no judicial oversight) is relatively easy since the emails remain “in the cloud” (which is not really a cloud at all, but a real place on Earth subject to prying eyes of all sorts).

    People are using different sorts of email services these days for ease of setup and convenience. But because few companies fully disclose the risks (or do so among pages and pages of legalese), many are not aware of the risks. The same can be said for many online services, such as social networking and blogging sites.

    Hopefully Zittrain’s work opens people’s eyes to some of these risks. If people aren’t made aware, there’s not much stopping us from ending up in the future that Zittrain predicts.

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