Corporations can control your gadgets

With wi-fi, cable and cellular connections now virtually everywhere, staying connected to the digital world is a snap. But that connection is a two-way street and it’s becoming increasingly clear that corporations can use it to control or even shut down something you own.

With wi-fi, cable and cellular connections now virtually everywhere, staying connected to the digital world is a snap. But that connection is a two-way street and it’s becoming increasingly clear that corporations can use it to control or even shut down something you own.

The question of who really controls your electronic devices is turning into a thorny issue for service providers, regulators and consumers, who may falsely assume the gadgets in their home are theirs to do with as they like.

The latest example involves a technology called selectable output control. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has approved a plan by cable and satellite companies there to reach into homes and temporarily shut off analog output connections on set-top boxes during certain programs.

The claim is that it will allow cable and satellite companies to offer premium movies-on-demand, before the movies are released on DVD. The companies say without the new power, viewers might simply record the films on a DVD recorder or other device, through the analog outputs on the back of the set-top box, and then upload copies to the Internet. So, the FCC is letting providers embed a signal in new movies that will disable the analog outputs.

“We’ve got high-value content and we want to make it easily available to consumers, but easily available in a way that can’t be easily copied, that’s all,” Howard Gantman, spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America, said in an interview.

The move has plenty of critics who argue that it amounts to temporarily breaking a device and infringes on consumer rights. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based consumer rights’ group, is worried cable providers will push for similar limits for popular sporting events, concerts and other programs.

“There is probably a lot of stuff that they’d like to use it for,” said Seth Schoen, the EFF’s senior staff technologist.

Generally, this type of technology is only used to prevent people from doing something they’re not allowed to do, such as copying and sharing a movie or keeping a car without paying for it. The industry argues it’s not very different from digital rights management measures, which have existed for years, such as anti-copying software embedded in DVDs or MP3s.

But critics say the idea of a corporation reaching out over the Internet or a wireless connection and into someone’s home is going too far.

Prasad Gowdar, a consumer technology commentator in Winnipeg, calls selectable output control technology “offensive.”

“I think that if I buy a (set-top) box, then I don’t expect them to be able to manipulate the functionality,” he said. “Put a sticker on it, saying ’this device can be remotely disabled.’ Put that sticker on the front of those machines and see how well they sell.”

There’s no word yet on whether selectable output control technology will come to Canada. The Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Association says the decision will lie with each of its individual members. The federal government has not received any request to allow the technology in Canada, but it’s not clear whether government permission would even be needed.

“Given the different regulatory regime in Canada, the use of this technology would be reviewed by all federal regulators with mandates that relate to this issue. The review would be to determine whether federal regulation is necessary, and which regulator would have responsibility,” Lauren Ehrenworth, a spokesperson for Industry Canada, wrote in an email.

It’s not just your cable box that can be affected. Handheld devices also can be remotely controlled by corporations long after you buy them and bring them home. Last year, many users of Amazon’s Kindle electronic reader were surprised to discover that copies of two George Orwell novels had been suddenly deleted from their devices. The company erased the books because it realized it hadn’t acquired the rights to sell them. A teenager sued Amazon and the company settled out of court.

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