Saturday, June 11, 2016

Not Unanticipated

“And [Congress] certainly didn’t anticipate that manufacturers would utilize the [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] to kill competition, stop software tinkering, chill research, and prohibit ‘unauthorized’ repairs.”
Kyle Wiens “Copyright, the Internet of Things, and the End of Ownership
I’d be surprised to find that’s true. The idea that it would be illegal to make modifications to technology is older than 1998. I suspect that Congress, on many occasions, has written laws that grant powers that are remarkably easy to abuse, and simply taken it on faith that companies won’t abuse them.

There is an idea, I think, that the general public watches corporate entities like hawks, and is ready to vote with their wallets en masse at the first sign of assholery. But I don’t think that this is anywhere near the truth. The fact of the matter tends to be that many people feel that corporations can be trusted to one degree or another (in large part, I think, because they've convinced themselves that _someone_ out there is looking out for them). Take the case of Leo Skolnick.

“Mr. Skolnick smoked, and smoking caused his cancer,” said Scott Schlesinger, one of the attorneys for Mrs. Skolnick. “But he trusted the word of tobacco companies who told him over the decades that tobacco was safe.”
Yes, one can make the case that he should have known better than to believe that cigarettes weren’t dangerous, but it’s worth pointing out that tobacco companies once featured physicians in their advertising. And it’s unlikely that they would have pushed the line for so long, if they hadn’t expected, on some level, to be believed, at least by someone.

And many of our interactions with businesses operate in a decidedly one-sided manner. As I noted back in 2011, we’ve become accustomed to signing legally binding contracts before we've actually read them. When I asked for a copy of cellular phone company's terms and conditions beforehand, so I could use that as a way of differentiating between companies, only Verizon had copies in their retail stores in an easily-accessible place. The employees and Sprint and T-Mobile wouldn’t even have known the document if they saw it. And while the management of my apartment complex are used to it now, I used to throw them for a loop by asking them to print up a copy of each new lease a week before I planned to sign it, so that I could read it, word for word, first.

Of course, not everyone is convinced that corporations are on the up and up - or that the public is paying attention. Elizabeth Warren crusaded for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency precisely because believes that people don't read contracts, especially financial ones, and wouldn’t understand them if they did. (After listening to her, I was surprised to find that my bank’s credit card contract was only about one-eighth as long as the ones she references.)

And I think that there is also another factor at play, one more deeply rooted in American history, and that is that wealthy people and organizations are inherently more moral than the rest of us. This allows for a society that expects companies to always act in a trustworthy manner, and looks askance at the public. Despite the fact that no-one is perfect, and the United States Postal Service is no exception, business are allowed to assume that a) if they put a correspondence in the mail, the intended recipient absolutely received it and b) if they didn’t receive a correspondence, it wasn’t sent. By the same token, they’re allowed to make reimbursements for errors on their own timetables, yet punish customers for failing to do things when the company wants them done, without oversight - despite the fact that a business having a customer’s money for a long period of time is likely to be much more damaging than a customer having a businesses money.

None of this is a secret. It’s just way things are organized. And, given that, I think that we should be prepared to assume that the Powers That Be are fully aware of this reality.

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