Reaching the Outer Limits of Property Rights

Drudge linked to a story (registration required) in the New York Times about how radio broadcasters are exploring a new system, called Radio Data System, wherein the radio stations can push text advertising onto your car dashboards (or other radios, I would guess). Some critics assail the possibility of drivers becoming distracted from their driving, but I’m not so worried about that. I realize most drivers aren’t paying attention to their driving anyway, and that the text advertisements might only distract drivers from their phone conversations, newspapers, breakfast, or make-up application.

Instead, I am worried more about property rights slowly but continually eroding, almost invisibly. Because, citizens, when it comes to who holds broadcast or reception rights to your personal property, the answer always seems to be not you.

It used to be that if you bought something and it became your property, you had rights to use it and dispose of it as you saw fit. No one else had rights to use it without your permission, else it would be stolen (or borrowed by your irresponsible sibling, but that’s something else). The Constitution even addresses a particular instance of government appropriation, quartering, in the Bill of Rights. You owned something, you could use it as you saw fit, and unless you were doing something illegal, no one could stop you.

Technology changes things. With radio, you bought a device that allowed you to receive information broadcast by another person or a corporation. So you had a personal device through which you could opt to listen to a broadcast, and you could choose among available broadcasts that you wanted to receive. The act of owning a radio and receiving a broadcast require an explicit owner action. Granted, the user had no control over the content, but the user had the control over the reception thereof. The radio broadcaster could not force the user to listen.

The telephone represents a two-way communications device that most people possess as personal property. The telephone allows you to either receive a transmission (a phone call), or it allows you to create a transmission (pick up and dial out). In either case, the owner must explicitly use the device to broadcast. The owner retains the right of transmission through his personal property.

The right of transmission, as I have so eloquently labeled it, should be a fundamental corollary of basic property rights. That once I own a device, I and I alone determine how to use it and when to use it. As technology outpaces understanding and forethought, we’re in great danger that this right is being ceded de facto to corporations whose products send and receive data without explicit owner consent–often without owner knowledge.

I see this end-run around the right of transmission in any number of instances, including existing and projected technologies. RFID tags that continue broadcasting their signal after purchase, not for the benefit of the owner but instead for the benefit of the manufacturer, retailler, or their bestest, closet “business partners.” Silver boxes beneath your car seat that record what you’re doing so that the manufacturer can point its finger at you, not the automobile, if an accident occurs. Of course, the worst offender is computer software.

New Internet-connected software often, without explicit user consent–phones home to rewrite “patch” itself or to “improve the customer experience”–by transmitting information about you and your computer to, once again, the manufacturer and its closest friends. The user’s experience improves in that he or she only sees the targetted marketing and reminders to upgrade that the manufacturer thinks the user wants to see, which is probably better than all possible marketing the manufacturer could send you. The software in some cases will contact its home without seeking consent to fix manufacturing defects–“consent” is granted through a single click at some time in the past or a nebulous and unreadable license agreement. Because of its current Wizard-of-Oz nature, the software industry gets away with this because its magic takes place behind the curtain, its functionality apparently wizardry when it works.

But I digress from my thesis with the expenditure from my information-systems-industry-venom sacs. Unlike automobile manufacturers who issue recalls that require a user’s specific action to take the auto into the dealership for repair or upgrade, some software manufacturers insist they’ll fix it automatically. A person who purchases a house would recognize his or her rights have been violated if he or she came home from work to find the house has had its deck removed and has been painted eggshell blue by the previous owners–however, some software companies reserve the right to refactor and rewrite–that is, replace–private property of its customers. The more they condition customers to accept this as normal, the less customers will recognize the nature of their property rights.

I admit that the article linked above only provided a jumping-off point for thought regarding this matter. I have trouble imagining people will rush out to buy radios that provide an extra benefit for broadcasters and nothing for the consumer. However, these companies do see it as their right to push marketing and to take other liberties with your personal property, and we as consumers and as citizens must stop clicking Yes, signing unread or undisputed contracts, and accepting quietly this usurping of our property rights.