By Meena Seralathan
Once upon a time, people were allowed to do what they wanted with their game consoles. Want to put stickers on the case? Go for it. Want to install a better operating system on it? Sure. Why on Earth should a person not be allowed to make benign changes to the product they bought?
Well, because we no longer seem to have control over the products we buy. The most recent evidence of this is the story of George Hotz. Hotz was one of many people who bought a PS3 because of its power and because Sony was actually willing to make it easy to put other operating systems on the device.
The move was genius, because not only did many tech-savvy people find the Playstation operating system unattractive in light of the various Linux distributions available, but the advertised feature gave people who did not want to play video games a reason to buy the console. As powerful as a decent computer, the PS3 was now an attractive option for universities and other non-gaming audiences, who could pay less for a PS3 than they would for a desktop computer.
George Hotz happened to be one of those people who bought his machine expecting to be able to install Linux. So naturally he was pretty angry when Sony turned around and decided to release a mandatory PS3 update that barred anyone from installing any other operating system on the machine. Sony claimed it was due to the possibility of making game piracy easier to perpetrate (which is a grim reality), but that excuse made the move no less aggravating to professors who had purchased dozens of these things for computing research, or for people like Hotz, who just wanted to develop his own applications for his machine.
As you may have guessed by now, Hotz decided to get that functionality back by hacking his PS3 and finding a way to put Linux back on it. Once he had done this, he had the audacity to release this hack to the public, so that others could put Linux back on their machines. Sony, in retaliation, took Hotz to court and recently won a temporary restraining order against him, forcing him to cease distribution of his hack. Meanwhile, attempts to sue Sony for the loss of this important feature have all but fizzled out. Evidently, a company is allowed to lie to you and steal hundreds of dollars of your money by doing so, but you are not allowed to restore functionality that is stolen from you, or help others do the same.
What is even more depressing about this story is that this concept of companies having more right to the products they sell than the consumers who pay for them is not really new. Apple’s iTunes DRM rules, which often force people to contact the company to get permission when they want to copy files (that they paid for) to a different computer, also reek of an industrial culture consisting of companies so afraid of losing profit that they cannot let go of their products, even when those products are in the hands of consumers. These companies feel the need to control everything a person does with their products just so they can ensure they are milking as much money out of their sales as possible.
This situation is akin to buying a car with built-in GPS, only to take your car in for a tune-up and find that the mechanics took the GPS out just because a few hundred people you had never heard of had abused the feature to stalk ex-wives or past bosses. Would you suck it up and get a new car, or would you find a way to put the GPS back in it, so that you could regain the features that were promised to you when you bought the car? And if other people came to you, GPS-less, wanting to regain the same feature that had been unfairly taken away from them, are you a monster for helping them out? And if there were people who would use your kindness to do evil, where should the manufacturers focus their prosecution: on you, or on the people who take what can be an innocent feature and turn it into something illegal?
George Hotz’s case is far from over, but it begs the question: how long will it be until we lose control over everything we pay for? And what will be the price of fighting against this cultural shift?
Seralathan, a senior computer science major, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.