Belfast Telegraph

How the internet has changed the concept of ownership

By Barry Adams

Buying stuff used to be so simple: you gave money to a merchant and in return you received a product.

But times have changed, society has moved on, and the concept of ownership has undergone a rather radical shift. The problem is, nobody ever told us.

The rise of the digital age has brought with it a wealth of new types of products and new ways of interacting with them. Nowadays we've got MP3 players loaded with music, ebook readers containing the latest novels, iPads and smartphones, downloadable videogames and web applications.

All these modern products are essentially still just that: products. A company makes them and sells them and eventually they end up in the hands of you, the consumer.

What has changed is that due to their built-in internet connectivity, all these products aren't as static as they used to be. Where once you bought a novel or an album, it was static and unchanged. If the book had a misprint, it wouldn't just magically disappear overnight. If the album had 11 tracks, it wouldn't suddenly have 10 tracks the next day.

But modern technology changes the static nature of stuff. Nothing is solid and immutable any more. Everything can, and does, change.

Amazon's Kindle ebook reader has built-in features that allow Amazon to make changes to - or even entirely remove - the ebooks that you purchase, without your consent or even your initial knowledge.

Apple's iPhones and iPads as well as Google's Android mobile phones have built-in features that allow Apple and Google to remove apps that you've downloaded via their respective app stores. Apple can also use its iTunes store to remove music that you've purchased if they deem it necessary.

Videogames come with mandatory online updates that you need to download before you can continue to play the game. Videogame developers can even make you play their games how they want you to play them.

Recently Blizzard, developer of the wildly popular StarCraft II videogame, banned thousands of players from StarCraft 2 for using third-party cheating programs. While this has been an accepted (and welcome) practice for multi-player games where you play against other gamers around the world and where a level playing field - without cheats - is deemed essential, the big difference here was that Blizzard banned players for using cheats in the single-player version of StarCraft II.

Essentially, Blizzard - and Apple, and Google, and Amazon, and nearly all manufacturers of modern digital stuff - doesn't just create a product. No, it also determines how you are allowed to use that product.

You no longer own the product that you bought. Instead you are leasing the product, paying for the privilege of using it, subject to the continued good graces of the product's manufacturer. They can, and do, remove your access to the product if they believe you have violated their EULA (End User Licence Agreement).

The boundaries of ownership have changed. Corporations are keenly aware of it, and have been (ab)using and expanding this new system of corporate ownership of your stuff so that nowadays almost everything you buy that is digitally enhanced and online-capable is never truly yours.

The problem is, nobody ever got around to informing us, the consumer, about this. We still believe that when we buy something, it's ours to use as we please.

It's time for us to abandon that archaic thought and join the modern age. An age where ownership always errs on the side of the corporate behemoths, where consumer rights are waived at the click of an "I Agree" button, and where you never truly own the things you own.

Barry Adams is senior digital marketer for search at Pierce Communications in Belfast.

Belfast Telegraph