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DEEPLINKS BLOG

Nest Reminds Customers That Ownership Isn't What It Used to Be

April 5, 2016

Nest Labs, a home automation company acquired by Google in 2014, will disable some of its customers' home automation control devices in May. This move is causing quite a stir among people who purchased the $300 Revolv Hub devices—customers who reasonably expected that the promised "lifetime" of updates would enable the hardware they paid for to actually work, only to discover the manufacturer can turn their device into a useless brick when it so chooses.

It used to be that when you bought an appliance, you owned it, and you could take it apart, repair it, and plug in whatever accessories you wanted without the manufacturer's knowledge or permission.

Nowadays, software enables devices to do new, useful things, but it also enables manufacturers to exert more control than ever before over their customers. Manufacturers use software to ensure a device serves their financial interests throughout its lifetime, forcing you to go to an authorized repair shop, buy official parts, and stay out of the secret workings of the device that would let you know what it's doing with the data it collects about you.

The latest example, the Hub, communicates with and controls home electronics using several different communication standards. The Hub debuted in 2013 and was discontinued after Nest acquired Revolv in late 2014. One selling point was that the one-time payment of $300 included a "Lifetime Subscription," including updates. In fact, the device shipped without all of its antennas being functional yet. Customers expected that the antennas would be enabled via updates.

Customers likely didn't expect that, 18 months after the last Revolv Hubs were sold, instead of getting more upgrades, the device would be intentionally, permanently, and completely disabled. (To be fair, the Revolv Hub design resembles HAL from Space Odyssey: 2001, so perhaps someone saw this betrayal coming).

Nest Labs and Google are both subsidiaries of Alphabet, Inc., and bricking the Hub sets a terrible precedent for a company with ambitions to sell self-driving cars, medical devices, and other high-end gadgets that may be essential to a person’s livelihood or physical safety.

This is far from the first time that customers' software and electronics have been downgraded by manufacturers. Updates can disable features the customer paid for that have fallen out of favor with the vendor, as when Google disabled privacy settings on Android or Sony took away the ability to run GNU/Linux on a Playstation 3. Manufacturers can even render a device unusable until the customer "agrees" to new terms of use, as Nintendo did with the Wii U. Other software and devices, including some video games, are designed so they simply stop working when they can no longer dial home to a server run by the vendor.

In an ideal world, Hub owners would be free to point their devices at a different central server, run by a third-party competitor or a trusted friend, or even run such a server on their own. They would likewise be free to collaborate on improved software that would unlock the potential of the Hub hardware or purchase such software from a competitor to Nest.

Other companies in Nest's position, though, have alleged that such conduct violates the DMCA's Section 1201. Last year, for example, video game companies told the Librarian of Congress that it would violate Section 1201 for a customer to tweak their game so it keeps working after the company stops supporting it. Though we don't agree that this tweaking constitutes a violation, we argued that in any case an exemption should be made to Section 1201 so that it is clear players may keep video games alive. The effort was successful for "local gameplay."

Home automation hubs were not on the agenda for the rulemaking last year. This means that, if the Revolv Hub includes an access control that needs to be circumvented to get at its code, then tinkerers who want to keep their $300 devices alive will need to operate in the legal grey area created by conflicting court decisions about the scope of Section 1201.

We work to improve the law and protect your right to tinker with technology. But there's another way to push back against untrustworthy devices, and that's refusing to buy electronics and software that prioritize the manufacturer's wishes above your own. Certainly Alphabet, which owns both Nest and Google, is going to have trouble selling its hardware in the future if it doesn't provide customers some assurance that they won't be left in the cold like those who rely on the Revolv Hub.

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