Hypothetical situation time
Let’s say it’s your birthday, and your great aunt Gertrude bought you a new cell phone, but she accidentally bought you the Verizon version, and you have AT&T. You find out that the phone actually has the hardware to support both networks, and you can easily switch to AT&T by changing the software in a process called unlocking. You go ahead and unlock the phone, and everything is well in the world. However, since old aunt Gertie bought your phone after January 2013 and you’re living in the United States, you’ve technically broken the law because you’ve violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
Mr. Librarian, What May I Hack?
This is all thanks to the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, who in October 2012 decided that unlocking cell phones would be removed from the exemptions to the DMCA beginning January 26, 2013. Luckily, petitions have been signed and responses have been posted by the White House and the FCC calling for action to restore the legality of unlocking. For now, you don’t have to worry about being hauled off to jail.
Running unauthorized software on your phones, called jailbreaking, will be kept legal until 2015 thanks to another exemption in the DMCA. However, like the expired exemption with unlocking, it does not cover non-phone devices like tablets. The current conversation on unlocking and jailbreaking revolves around the technology we touch most: phones and tablets. If you own a product that is able to be programmed, should you have a legal right to program that product? Does the answer to that question change as other “dumb” products in our lives become smarter?
Should you be able to run your own software on your smart watch? How about your smart thermostat, or smart refrigerator? Why would you ever want to program a fridge? To answer that, let’s take a look at another hypothetical:
Say your smart refrigerator can detect what food it contains, and offer up recipe ideas. The recipes are supplied by a partner service, “Big Joe’s Greasy Eats” and you usually don’t like the recipes they offer for some reason. You’d love to get recipes from your favorite recipe service, “Delicious Meals That Won’t Make You Fat”. Unfortunately, since your refrigerator company struck a deal with Big Joe, they don’t let you change the recipe source. Even more unfortunately, there’s no exemption in the DMCA for smart refrigerators because the only person granted with the power to add exemptions (for some reason), the Librarian of Congress, still uses an ice box and has never heard of a smart refrigerator. Should it really be a crime to add your favorite recipe to the fridge’s approved recipe providers?
Diving deeper into the future, perhaps the biggest “dumb” product that’s ripe for innovation is something that touches nearly all of us every day: the automobile. The long awaited self driving car is finally becoming a reality. Hundreds of thousands of miles have been driven without the aide of a human and autonomous cars are now legal in Nevada, Florida and California. With something as powerful and dangerous as a car, one can bet that the control software will face strict regulation. Running your own code on your car now becomes a public safety issue, but the fundamental question remains the same as with phones and tablets: is it legal to run custom software on products that I own?
The conversation on smart transportation doesn’t stop with automobiles. While the time frame is up for debate, it’s a near certainty that FAA will allow the commercial use of drones, and personal use is already happening at an ever increasing scale. I have a feeling that like every really cool, powerful technology, this transition is going to happen surprisingly fast. The laws we have are already behind the times, and we need to look far into the future to plan around the consequences of laws written only for the current generation of technology.