On April 1st, 2017, Robert Martin returned home to find that his garage door wouldn’t open. Martin had recently purchased an IoT garage door opener, but he found that it was unresponsive. It wasn’t a power outage or something similar that caused the problem; instead, the manufacturer Garadget had intentionally disabled Martin’s door by blocking his device from their servers. Garadget’s reason for disabling Martin’s garage door? He had left a 1 star rating on Amazon, and had left a negative review on their customer forums. You can read about the incident here.
Martin’s story soon went viral, sparking debate on the ethics of IoT products and how much control we, as a society, are willing to give up in favor of convenience. This article will present both sides of that argument, but it is up to us to decide how we allow IoT devices to change our daily lives, and how much control we’re willing to give up.
Argument from Consumer Protection
On this side of the argument, Robert Martin is justified in leaving his one star review and complaining on customer forums. It is, after all, his right to voice his opinion. The company, Garadget, should not have the right to cancel his service for any arbitrary reason.
This story is really about a company retaliating against negative press. Should consumers live in fear of their household devices being disabled, just because they choose to voice their displeasure? It would seem to reason that manufacturers would actually benefit if this became the norm. Punishing angry customers discourages negative reviews of their product, and therefore artificially inflates customer ratings and improves sales. The only loser in this scenario is us, the consumer. How can that be considered ethical?
Another thing to consider is that a garage door may be considered a security product. What if the same cancellation of service was done to someone leaving a negative review on an internet connected door lock, enabling intruders? What if an auto manufacturer remotely disabled a vehicle? What about an internet connected pacemaker, to take this to an extreme – would it be acceptable for a company to remotely disable such a device because of a bad review? Where do we draw the line on what’s acceptable and what isn’t? When does inconvenience turn into harm, and where do we draw that line?
The bottom line: More and more consumer devices will be backed by Internet services in the future. Should manufacturers really have the power to disable those devices at any time and for any reason? Doesn’t that mean consumers are effectively held hostage?
Argument from Manufacturer Freedom
In this counter-position, Garadget is completely justified in deciding who is and who is not allowed to use their services. If Martin’s internet connectivity had gone down for example, the device would have also stopped working, but we wouldn’t be casting blame at Gardaget. Disconnection is just part of the deal with internet services; the customer should not have an expectation of guaranteed service and connectivity. More importantly, Garadget owns their servers, and they have a right to decide who uses them and when.
Garadget offers not just a device, but a service as well. And for services, we are already accustomed to dealing with cancellations, for any reason. If somebody is being disruptive at a restaurant or in a theater for example, the owners have the right to demand that person to leave. Why should Internet services be any different?
If we think legal protections are needed, what would they even look like? How damaging might it be to companies if after they’ve sold a product to a customer, they are legally obligated to preserve that service, no matter what? Even when you look at utility companies, which provide vital services like gas water and electricity, you’ll find that they don’t guarantee service. Utilities companies can disconnect non-paying customers (although it’s some restrictions). There’s no unrestricted guarantee of service.
The bottom line: IoT companies host and pay for the services they offer, and are the sole owners of those services. Who but the companies themselves can decide who can and cannot use those services?
The Internet of Things is changing how we use everyday objects, and that change can sometimes be jarring. By connecting your household items to Internet services, we lose a degree of control. As we move towards this future, we are faced with a decision. Should we fight to ensure that control stays with the consumer? Or is that control just something we sacrifice for the benefit of Internet connected devices? We as a society will have some difficult decisions and tough battles ahead of us. It’s not easy changing how we live our lives day-to-day, but that’s the path we are on. Where will we end up? Where should we end up?