The Digital Ownership Illusion

Welcome to Nothing

Microsoft recently announced they are shutting down their ebook store. Which means that anyone who purchased books will lose access to them on July 1st, although the company has promised refunds.

For most people that likely means nothing, since they probably didn’t even know Microsoft was in the digital book business in the first place. But the closing does provide yet another reminder that we probably don’t own the digital media in our collections.

I think for most people it’s pretty clear that media streaming services like Netflix and Spotify and software like Adobe’s Creative Cloud are only rental agreements. After all, you get a monthly bill with access to everything available. And another stark reminder on those relatively rare occasions when they are offline.

However, it’s not as obvious when you click the “Buy” button for something digital at a so-called store like Amazon or iTunes.

Those files may be sitting on your device but they also come with a software tether back to the company, commonly known as “digital right management” (DRM). Unlike a physical book or DVD, the code prevents you from making a copy of it1, loaning it to your friend, or selling it at your next yard sale.

That means you only “own” that ebook, movie, or TV show as long as the vendor allows. If, for some reason, they (or the copyright owner) removes it from their catalog, or the store closes entirely, your ability to use the media vanishes.

All of which is not to say you shouldn’t “buy” any digital media. Just understand that what you’re actually getting is a long term lease that can be revoked at any time.


Unlike the Microsoft ebook store, this hotel probably reopened after winter was done.

1. Most DVDs also come with DRM code that’s supposed to prevent copying. However, there is plenty of software available that will easily bypass those locks. It’s legal for personal use. Not so much for loaning or gifting the files.

Beware the Algorithm

Cathy O’Neil is the author of a great book with the wonderfully provocative title, Weapons of Math Destruction. But it’s not hyperbole. In it she clearly and compellingly explains how algorithms, fueled by big data, are being used everyday to make decisions about important points in our lives. This includes whether or not we qualify for a loan, get a job, or go to prison.

Or create the “value add” rating a teacher receives, the one that mixes student test scores with data other points to determine if they keep their job.

The companies who sell those evaluation systems want us to believe that their mathematics is completely objective and a neutral judge of people. O’Neil, however, presents a variety of examples, starting with the teacher evaluation programs sold by Pearson and others, to explain why that’s just not true. She explains how the data used to build the algorithms usually comes with biases based on how and why it was collected. And additional bias is built into the systems by the people who ultimately decide what the resulting numbers mean.

While I highly recommend reading the book, you can get the TL;DR1 version of O’Neil’s warning in her TED talk from last spring, recently posted to their site and embedded below.

Fear the Camera

Please excuse me while I rant…

I found that sign displayed outside of a waterside tourist space during a recent trip and there’s nothing particularly remarkable about this list of rules. It’s the kind of stuff you might expect in any place with drinking crowds. I certainly want the “No weapons” restriction in a bar.

Then we come to the line “No Professional Cameras”.

I’m pretty sure whoever wrote that rule was thinking of a camera like the one used to make this image: a relatively big, black, single-lens reflex with interchangeable lenses. The variety of device you might expect to see in the hands of a paparazzi while stalking a Kardashian.

Except mine is not a “professional” camera.

I’ve never been paid a dime for any image I’ve made with it. I’ve never had a job that required me to use this device. I’m not a professional photographer, so this is not a “professional” camera.

Now, I’m certainly not going to complain directly to the management of this establishment about that one line. Their place, their rules.

I’m just pointing out this single, relatively minor entry in the unfortunately long list of examples of the modern day fear of photography.

Like the Metro cop who told me I couldn’t take pictures on the platform 2 and then walked past a group of kids doing exactly that with their smartphones. Or the security guards in DC who questioned me for pointing my camera at an interesting reflection in the window of a government building from a public street.

Do a quick Google search and you’ll find many, many similar stories, some with far worse consequences.

My point to this somewhat lame post is, cameras are everywhere, in the hands of just about everyone. Trying to ban or limit their use, especially by calling one particular style “professional”, is going to be an exercise in frustration. Far better to ask people to be respectful of others when making pictures. Doesn’t always work, but still better.

Ok, I’m done ranting. Thanks for reading this far.

For those interested, the ACLU has a short, simple guide to photographers’ rights. If you use a camera of any kind in public, read it.

The Price of Privacy

Sign about not having anything to hide

2

I don’t think most people understand online privacy.

They’re pretty sure the NSA and other government agencies are sucking up their data, and probably have been for years. But they largely adopt the philosphy in the image and assume their phone calls and internet traffic are not important enough for anyone to notice or care about.

Their information is inconsequential by being buried in a giant pile with trillions of other bits. Or they are resigned to the matter and offer a “what can you do” shrug. Or worse, they support the idea of that giving up some of their privacy will result in greater protection from the bogey man being presented to frighten them this week.

On the other hand, whatever the attitude towards government surveillance, most people seem quite complacent when it comes to Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other tech companies collecting their data2. In fact, they upload their personal information to these sites at a furious pace every day. And a growing number of people are happily adding to that data pile by buying devices that keep a running record of what they say and do.

For some reason, people seem to assume these billion dollar corporations (and a vast of array of cool startups) have their best interest at heart. The settings Facebook provides by default will assure their privacy. Amazon won’t tell anyone about the products I’ve bought. Google will keep my search history and email contents secret.

Sure. Except for the information provided to the marketing departments of thousands of companies. Companies who pay large amounts of money so you can have “free” services. When you pour all of that data together into some increasingly sophisticated algorithms, they gain some very valuable information. About what you buy (or want to buy), where you travel, who communicate with, and much, much more.

Now, I could very easily drop into conspiracy theory territory in this post, and I don’t want to go there. Many of these free online services have great value. In fact, I add many little bits of personal info to Google’s massive data pile every day. I even teach classes on their map-related resources to help teachers use them with students, and I have no illusion that Google isn’t collecting information from interactions with those maps.

But I’m also very picky about which services I use and what information I will provide. For example, I don’t post anything to Facebook (I do have an account) for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is their TOS. And I’ve actually read more than few terms of service documents, and keep a short list of interesting translations and sites that help others understand what they are agreeing to.

Regardless of my personal preferences, however, this is a topic that all teachers need to better understand. They must help their students learn to protect themselves online, as well as doing a better job of evaluating the software and web services they bring into the classroom.

It may appear that Google, Microsoft, and the other companies (big and small) are keeping their free/cheap education web services “closed” to the outside world. But students (and you) are still providing data with everything they do. (Just look at what can be learned from a single photograph.) And those corporations are getting better everyday at monetizing your information.

Reading The Digital Fine Print

Have you ever read Facebook’s Terms of Service and Privacy Policy? How about Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or any of the many other social networking sites you likely interact with?

Those user agreements are not just a formality in the registration process. They are legally binding contracts between you and the company, which apply whether you read and understood the whole thing or not.

A lawyer who has read many of these documents explains some of the little pieces you missed, using Instagram as an example.

Instagram’s Terms of Service is a long document, most of which is pretty straightforward and reasonably fair. You agree not to harass other users, not to try to hack their code, and other things that I think we can all agree are pretty necessary to keep things functioning.

The licensing section, though, is what I’d like to examine a little more closely. Particularly, this paragraph:

Instagram does not claim ownership of any Content that you post on or through the Service. Instead, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service, subject to the Service’s Privacy Policy, available here http://instagram.com/legal/privacy/, including but not limited to sections 3 (“Sharing of Your Information”), 4 (“How We Store Your Information”), and 5 (“Your Choices About Your Information”).

That’s pretty clear, right? Well, maybe not.

Here, in one sentence, is what you’ve just agreed to: “You’ve just granted Instagram the right to do anything at all with your photos, without ever paying you a dime for any of it.”

But that’s not all.

Instagram and the others are not non-profit, public services. They are trying to make a lot of money. And since you didn’t give them any, the companies find other ways: “They provide a service for free, and in return you give them some information about you, which they sell to advertisers.”

Whether you know it or not, your data is pretty valuable stuff. Your browsing history provides a lot of information about you and, through the use of cookies and other technologies, Instagram and others are able to collect and share those particulars with anyone willing to pay for it.

The privacy policy for these services often talk about “anonymizing” your data, removing any specific information about you before passing it along to a third party. However, there are no promises.

Does Instagram anonymize data in this way? Probably so, although it’s difficult if not impossible to verify that. But under the terms laid out in Instagram’s TOS, they are under no obligation to do so, and if they suddenly decided to stop and just straight-up sell all your personal info to advertisers, (1) they would be perfectly within their legal rights, and (2) you would probably never know about it.

Ok, if I just delete my account, all will be well, right? Probably not.

But under the TOS, Instagram is perfectly free to keep sharing those photos regardless of whether they’re deleted. The TOS is most likely worded that way to cover those times when a user deletes something, but cached copies continue to appear for a while. Nonetheless, the intent is irrelevant when the language is clear, and that language in the TOS is unambiguous.

Although this post (on a blog for photographers) examines Instagram, the terms of service and privacy policies on other social media sites are very similar, if not the same in the case of Facebook which owns Instagram. And the writer is not recommending you abandon these services.

Nothing I’ve written here is meant to say that you shouldn’t use Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, or any of the others. I use them myself, and just like you, when I signed up I clicked “OK” without reading the user agreement. Nonetheless, it’s worth taking a moment to examine why you’re using them and what you’re getting out of it, and consider how you can prepare now for contingencies that may arise down the road.

I’m not suggesting you quit either.

However, knowing what you’ve agreed to with a simple click of the mouse/tap of the screen is always a good thing. And once you understand, explain it to your students, colleagues, and your own children as well. They deserve to know what they’ve legally agreed to as well.