You Don't Own Your Computer (and that's a good thing)

Here's a question: the laptop or cell phone or tablet in front of you... do you own it? Maybe you're financing your phone from Verizon, but even if you paid full price and do not owe another dime to anyone else for it... do you own it?

Every so often I encounter hackers who demand nothing but free software, unlocked bootloaders, and open source hardware. They quote Richard Stallman's GNU Philosophy at me and claim they “own” their laptops, they “own” their cell phone. I disagree. No matter how much you control the software, you don't own a god damned thing.

The problem starts with the Internet. In the 90s, the Internet was described as “the information super highway” and it's actually a perfect metaphor today. Because I own my car. No matter how many payments are left on it, no matter how often I open the hood, no matter if I change my own tires or not. I own that car. Because I am singularly responsible for that car.

Let's take a metaphorical detour from our metaphor's detour... Stallman and “free software” folks like to talk about two different uses of the word “free”. There's free-as-in-beer which means you did not pay to use it. And there's free-as-in-freedom which means you are unrestricted in your use. So when we talk about “ownership”, I want to give two definitions of “ownership”. The first being it's-in-my-sole-possession, and the second being it's-my-sole-responsibility. People love to talk about the possession aspect of ownership, but often forget the responsibility aspect of ownership.

Back to the car analogy – if a tire flies off my car on the normal non-super highway and my car crashes into someone else's car, I have to pay to repair my car because I own-as-in-sole-possession-of that car and no one else will pay to fix it. But I also have to pay for the other person's car that my car damaged, because I own-as-in-responsible-for my car. If my car that I own causes damage to someone else's personal property, I am responsible for that damage.

So if my Internet-connected device is on the information super highway and causes damage to someone else's personal property, what happens? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. If my device causes damage to yours, I'm not held responsible for a single thing. If your device damages mine, likewise I cannot sue you for damage. If I don't clean malware off my computer and it spreads to yours, tough luck. That's just how the Internet works.

So do you actually own your device? You installed your own free software, the hardware is open source, and the bootloader is under your complete control... but if you don't take responsibility for damage your device causes... do you actually own it?

Unless you're willing to own-as-in-responsible-for your devices, you don't actually own your devices.