From smart toasters to fitness collars for dogs, we live in a world where everything around us is gradually being connected to the internet and equipped with sensors so that we can interact with them online.
Many people worry about the privacy risks of using these devices because they can allow hackers to listen in on our conversations at home. But the contracts to use them are so long that we don’t understand what other rights we can sign up for.
During research for my book, I discovered that using Alexa’s voice command triggers 246 contracts that we have had to accept in order to use it. These agreements transfer our rights and data to countless, often unidentified, parties. For example, they often refer to “affiliates”.
Despite months of research, I was unable to clarify who these affiliates are or even if these affiliates are affiliates or advertisers. Of the 246 contracts, I focused on those most likely to be relevant to smart speaker Echo users. I found that on average they are as long as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (317 pages). Not exactly easy reading.
Data analytics firm Statista found that it would take an hour and a half to read Apple’s terms and conditions to create an Apple ID. And that assumes you don’t need to pause to check the meaning of the text.
Using the Literatin plugin, a Google Chrome extension that assesses text readability, I found these contracts to be as readable as Machiavelli’s 16th-century political treatise, The Prince.
Truth be told, have you ever read the full terms and conditions before accepting?
According to @VisualCapwhich includes 21 of the most popular online platforms, 97% of people between the ages of 18 and 34 accept the terms without reading them. pic.twitter.com/ipznjfaA0a
— Statista (@StatistaCharts) December 17, 2021
Does this matter?
Until recently, we might have been forgiven for thinking that the terms (terms) we accept when surfing the internet were just an exercise and nothing to worry about.
But between January and July 2023, Europe’s leading data protection authorities – the European Data Protection Board and the European Court of Justice – shed light on Meta’s (formerly known as Facebook, Inc) practice of relying on these contracts to target us with ads. And in an unprecedented move, they banned this practice.
General terms and conditions are not only about our privacy – and our privacy is not only about our data. By surrounding ourselves with devices with sensors (also known as the “Internet of Things”), we have effectively invited digital landlords into our homes.
An example I refer to in my book is in an Amazon contract that legally binds anyone who watches videos on their Echo devices: “Purchased digital content … may become unavailable … and Amazon will not be responsible for you”.
In other words, if you think you own your digital content just because you buy it, think again: can we call it property if it can be removed randomly?
Companies act on these types of hidden clauses. In 2019, Amazon (quite fittingly) withdrew the e-books of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 from its Kindle users due to alleged copyright issues.
Another example is how tractor manufacturer John Deere relied on its End User License Agreement (Eula) to stop farmers from repairing their smart tractors. John Deere’s Eula prohibited customers from even looking at the software it uses to drive its tractors.
Betting giant Spreadex took a customer, Colin Cochrane, to court to force him to pay almost £50,000 in 2012 gambling losses suffered by his stepson. Cochrane’s girlfriend’s son had been “playing” with his computer without his permission while he was away from the house.
Spreadex referred the UK account owner to a clause in its customer agreement that equated the use of account passwords with confirmation of who was behind the screen using the device.
Fortunately for Cochrane, the judge ruled that the clause was not enforceable because it would have been “quite irrational” for Spreadex to assume that the customer read the agreement and understood its implications.
Regulation does not work
Examples of legal reforms are the online security bill in Great Britain and the data act in the EU. They are both in progress, so we don’t yet know when they will be adopted.
Law reform is a painfully slow process. Big tech and other big stakeholders have enormous influence because they have the money and influence to fight laws they don’t like.
Sometimes bills end up so diluted that they are of little use. This was the case with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into effect at the end of a nine-year process. It was born out of date. Several studies have underlined the GDPR’s inadequacy to deal with new technologies such as ChatGPT.
The solution is to organize collectively. Let’s circle back to John Deere and how the company tried to deprive tractor owners of their right to repair their machines. There is much to learn from the farmers who joined forces with hackers to resist “smart abuses of power”.
After opposing their right to repair campaign for years, John Deere in early 2023 relented and allowed farmers and ranchers to fix their own tractors. But only after participants at a hacker convention figured out how to “jailbreak” the code that locked farmers and engineers out.
Read more: Why Google, Bing, and Other Search Engines’ Embrace of Generative AI Threatens the $68 Billion SEO Industry
Around the world, groups of data scientists, digital rights activists, citizens are creating cooperatives and citizen-led movements. They are motivated by partly different but overlapping goals, such as making the IoT more open and versatile.
Big tech workers act collectively to prevent unethical use of their employers’ technology. For example, in 2020 Google employees fought to stop the company’s decision to provide its AI to law enforcement despite the failure of facial recognition, which has often perpetuated racism and other forms of discrimination.
We can win the fight against smart power through alliances between these collectives.
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