Saturday, May 15, 2021

Are you aware what you lose by just clicking OK to get started using something?

The right to privacy, the right to repair and the right to choose your tools for tasks at hand are aspects of the same. A new court ruling in Italy could help us regain righs that we were manipulated into giving up.

It's likely you do not spend much time thinking about the fact that if you are an ordinary IT user in an industrialized country, you have most likely have been tricked into giving up rights. This happens on a scale that should be worrying to anyone concerned about human rights in general.

Consider the situation when you want to start using something you are interested in, either a computer of some sort such as a PC, tablet or phone, or a network based service.

First, look at what happens when you get get your new computer, tablet or telephone and start unboxing. One of the very first things after you have powered the device on, and certainly before you get any opportunity to use the thing for whatever you want to do, is that you are required to accept a legally binding agreement that has been designed by and for those who manufactured the equipment. In order to be able to use the thing you bought, you are required to accept an agreement that governs what you are able to do with the device.

With some devices you will be presented with several separate agreements, each with its own registration of whether you accept the terms or not.

Some of the agreements set limits on what you can use the device for, while others grant the supplier or cooperating parties permission to collect information about you and what you do with the device.

Most of those yes/no style questions will give the impression that you have a real choice to not agree to the terms, but you will find that you probably will not go on to getting a device that is in fact usable for the intended use until you have agreed to the terms of all of the agreements.

One of the more visible consequences of the COVID 19 crisis is that a larger subset of us were forced into an almost totally digital existence, where communication for work and school happens via digital devices and via services that are provided according to terms dictated by the service providers. Some of us have led a mostly digital existence for years already, but for a large chunk of the population this is a totally new set of circumstances and it is slowly dawning on an increasing number of people that important freedoms and rights may be on a path towards extinction.

This is not a new set of problems. Among IT professionals, many of us have for years been warning that crucial human rights or civil rights are being slowly worn away, largely to the benefit of a few corporations and their owners.

When you turn on a new computer or phone for the first time, most likely you will be asked right away to accept an "end user license" for the operating system, that is, the software that controls the device. In its simplest form, a license is a document that specifies the terms that govern granting other someone other than a work's author (here the software developers) permission to produce copies of the work. 

However, in many cases the license document contains far more wide reaching terms and permissions. We often see that the license agreement grants you a right to not accept the terms for using the operating system and delete or return any copies delivered with the device and get a refund, but you retain the right to use the physical device. 

Some of us have bought PCs or other devices and managed to install an operating system that was not supplied with the device, choosing to live our digital lives using free alternatives such as Linux or OpenBSD. Some of us do this in order to gain more direct control of the tools we use.

If we have tried to get a refund for an unused operating system license, most of us have not been sucessful. But we will return to that matter shortly.

If you have successfully installed a free alternative to the operating system that came with your device, you have contributed to strengthening the right to choose your tools, the right to repair and to make your own decisions about your possessions. But unfortunately this is not the only part of your digital life where your rights are in grave danger.

Regardless of whether you accepted the end user license earlier or not, you will soon encounter software or network based services that present end user agreements of their own. There is a considerable chance that you will just click OK without reading the conditions of that agreement.

Please take a break from reading this and go check what conditions you have actually agreed to. More likely than not, you will find that both operating system suppliers and social media services have had you give them permission to record what you do when you use the system or the service. For good measure, please take the time to check the conditions for all products and services you have registered for. Most likely not just one, but a large majority of the services and products you use on a network connected device have granted themselves the right to record and store data on your behavior. If you use the device to anything privacy relevant or involving sensitive information it is well worth checking how consequences those agreements bear ouut for your right to privacy.

On paper (yes, I'm sounding old fashioned on purpose) residents of the EU and EEA attached countries have a right to get a copy of data stored about us and if needed get any errors corrected or even have data deleted accordign to the EU General Data Protection Regulation, known as the GDPR. I

f you found something while checking the agreements on your break from reading this feels concerning or makes you unsure, you would to well to exercise your right to viewing, copying, correction or deletion. If you do not get any meaningful response, your best path of action is to contact the local-to-you Data Protection Authority (in Norway, that is Datatilsynet) or the local-to-you Consumer Protection Agency (again in Norway we have Forbrukertilsynet), both should be able and willing to offer assistance.

But what then, of the right to repair or the right to choose one's own tools? The good news is that there is reason to hope. After a complex and long winded process an Italian court recently decided not only did a Linux enthusiast have the right to install Linux on a new Lenovo computer, the customer also had the right to get the price of the unused operating system refunded. Unfortunately Lenovo had attempted to not live up to their obligations as specified by the end user license presented to the customer, and they were fined the amount of 20,000 Euros.

A decision of this category is apparently not automatically a binding legal precedent in other European countries, and we are aware of decisions in other countries that did not grant the customer the right to treat a computer and its operating system as separate items. As the Norwegian association of Unix and free software users (Norwegian Unix User Group - NUUG) we are now entering in a cooperative effort coordinated by the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) to protect and defend your right and mine to privacy, the right to repair and the right to choose the tools we use to manage our digital existence.

If any of the things you just read makes you concerned, confused, angry or just eager to help strengthen our civil rights and human rights in the digital domain, we will be very happy to hear from you.

Peter N. M. Hansteen
Board Chair of the Norwegian Unix User Group (NUUG)

The Italian court decision that offers some hope is described in some detail on the FSFEs web: Refund of pre-installed Windows: Lenovo must pay 20,000 euros in damages

This article originally appeared 2021-05-15 in Norwegian on NUUG's news web "2021-05-15 - Vet du hva du mister når du bare klikker OK for å komme i gang med å bruke noe?"

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