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Who is your hard drive working for?

Western Digital, a producer of networked
hard drives that enable users to access their files across the net, has blocked customers
from sharing media files from their drives
. Needless to say, users are not
and hard at work at finding workarounds. The move is possibly a
pre-emptive way for the company to avoid being sued by the content industry for
providing a means for piracy. The block covers most popular media formats,
regardless of who owns the copyright of the contents. This makes it impossible
for users to share e.g. home videos or their own creations. Who really owns the
hard drive – the customer or Western Digital?

Digital Rights Management (DRM),
technological systems that attempt to control how copyrighted information is
shared, are controversial and generally unloved by customers. However, the
ethical issue here is not DRM itself. The current copyright regime may be criticized from a number of ethical, economical
and political angles
. If the seller and customer freely agreed on a
contract, then it does not matter if the hardware has excessive controls. The
problem is that the DRM is often not advertised when buying a product, and the
customer hence is forced into a stricter relationship with the seller than he
would otherwise had agreed on.

In the case of the Western Digital hard
drive the limitations on sharing were not mentioned on the box, and the webpage even
(at least of the time of writing this) mentions “Share Photos and Files”,
giving clients easy access to artwork and mention listening to one’s music
while on vacation, all which give a very clear impression that all data can be
shared. Only a recently added footnote mentions the restrictions. The actual
blocking is done by supplied software which is (apparently erroneously)
presented as “required”.

(Dis)Loyal Machines

The ethical issue goes deeper than
misleading advertising. It has to do with the loyalty and autonomy of our
technology. A non-autonomous tool such as a knife will not act independently of
its user, and responsibility for its actions is clearly on the user’s shoulders.
If they fail in achieving the goals of the user it is either the user’s fault
or a manufacturing problem. As devices become more able to act on their own
responsibilities become more blurred and it may be increasingly possible to
speak of how much the device is loyal to its owner (i.e. fulfil his interests).
Much desktop software regularly downloads updates from the manufacturer with
little or no user prompting, changing its behaviour in ways the user can not
influence. Are these updates in the interest of the user? In many cases they
may be directly contrary (such as imposing stricter DRM control), and the
software can be regarded as disloyal to its formal owner.

Can we demand loyalty from our possessions?
As long as they are not advanced enough that they become moral subjects (e.g.
intelligent machines) the question is rather whether we can demand
manufacturers to refrain from limiting the degree to which we control our

Traditional principles of ownership rights
tend to include:

  • The right to control the use of the property
  • The right to benefits from the property
  • The right to transfer or sell the property
  • The right to exclude others from the property

The first and fourth rights support the
demand for loyalty: we have a right to exclude third parties from controlling
our possessions, even indirectly. In practice ownership rights are often
limited beyond this, for example by software
. This falls into the practical issue of whether the customer has
full information when making a purchase, especially if the licence agreement
allows the property to change its behaviour in the future.

some cases possessions that do not always act according to our desires might be
preferable to completely loyal things: a gun that always reported to the police
when, where and at what it fired would make a good tool for self-defence but
prevent robberies. A car that refuses too fast, drunk or sleepy driving would
save lives. Ownership does not confer any right to interfere with public
property rights such as risking the safety of others, and possessions that had
built-in safeguards against such uses would from a property rights perspective
be completely acceptable.

To summarize, it does not seem that
property rights are enough to demand total loyalty (which would probably be
equivalent to sovereignty).
Contracts and public goods may limit the right to loyalty. However, disloyal
possessions clearly undermine ownership rights, and should hence be

There is another good reason to strive to
keep autonomous possessions loyal, and that is the lack of judgement they
possess. The hard drive could not distinguish licensed from unlicensed music,
so it blocked all kinds. A breathalyser equipped car will not allow a mildly
inebriated person to drive even during an emergency. The devices will make
decisions in a rigid, unaccountable manner. This can be both impractical or dangerous,
and often allows manufacturers to escape accountability by citing licensing
agreements. Loyal well-designed devices would leave the decision and moral accountability
to their human owner (such as the pistol example above). Rules, be they laws or
moral principles, relating to the complex world of human interactions always
require understanding and flexibility. Until the devices can show enough
understanding they should not be enforcing such rules.



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