It goes without saying that digital goods like streaming services, cloud storage, wearables, digital books, and more, provide people the chance to enjoy a wide variety of features and services. But the tradeoff also involves a certain degree of compromised privacy, technical limits, and user agreements that most of us don't bother to truly grapple with.
Perhaps the best example that demonstrates how empty the word "ownership" has become in the digital age is a Fitbit tracker. Yes, you own the physical device, but the data the device records belongs to Fitbit. Even after you delete your account, Fitbit reserves the right to use your data indefinitely.
“When we say that personal property rights are being eroded or eliminated in the digital marketplace, we mean that rights to use, to control, to keep, and to transfer purchases – physical and digital – are being plucked from the bundle of rights purchasers have historically enjoyed and given instead to IP rights holders.”
The End of Ownership
“That in turn means that those rights holders are given greater control over how each of us consume media, use our devices, interact with our friends and family, spend our money, and live our lives. Cast in these terms, it is clear that there is a looming conflict between the respective rights of consumers and IP rights holders.”
The End of Ownership
Another example of how personal property (specifically data ownership) became dicey with the shift from analog media to digital media is cloud storage. According to various end-user-agreements, as the End of Ownership astutely points out, companies can maintain access to your data for as long as they need to — even if you're not a fan of the idea. Author Dan Gray discusses the same issue in Data Ownership In The Cloud.
Companies insist that DRM helps to fight copyright infringement, but critics like Perzanowski and Schultz blast DRM for crushing competition and innovation, and restricting how everyday users interact with technical media like ebooks off Amazon, video games and authentication servers, smartphone apps, and much more.
“While not nearly as dramatic as flamethrowers and fighting robot dogs, the unilateral right to enforce such restrictions through DRM exerts many of the types of social control [Fahrenheit 451's author Ray Bradbury] feared. Reading, listening, and watching become contingent and surveilled.”
At the core of End of Ownership, Perzanowski and Schultz warn us about the perils of thinking too optimistically about tradeoffs between services and property rights. But they end on a hopeful and prudential note: more rights for consumers will enable more autonomy and self-direction in the marketplace.
More autonomy will help people make better and lawful choices when they use digital goods. Technology's purpose, as the authors argue, should be to empower the consumer, not chain them in half-understood arbitrary rules. For this reason alone, the refreshingly straightforward End of Ownership is worth checking out.