Microsoft, remote Xbox 360 bricking, trust, and individuality

While slightly old, I only recently stumbled across a Technologizer article that claims Microsoft can remotely disable (“brick”) an Xbox 360 console.

The chilling effect here should be obvious. And I have two points to note about this.

One, I am really glad I don’t do proprietary game consoles anymore. I miss them less as time goes on.

Two, it has long been my viewpoint that any time a company releases a gadget like this, not designed to run a free software operating system (in this case, quite obviously designed never to run anything not bearing Microsoft’s digital signature equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval), it would greatly behoove one to treat the transaction as a rental, not a purchase. That is, when one buys an Xbox 360, one is renting that device from Microsoft for its useful life, for a flat rate, and one considers the device as actually being owned by Microsoft during this time. (Think of the “return” as being made to a recycling center. Even though one technically can sell the Xbox, it would still be wise to treat this more as the transferring of a rental contract than an actual sale, similar to what happens when one gets tired of the iPhone after a season’s worth of lousy service from AT&T and is no longer interested in paying the balance of the two-year contract.)

The Xbox is just an example here. It’s not just the Xbox, or just Microsoft; Apple’s iPhone and iPod would also qualify here, making the appropriate substitutions. As mentioned previously, I would also treat the Amazon Kindle in this fashion. There is unfortunately no neat place to draw a “line in the sand” here; some manufacturers are actually reasonable and do not resort to fascist tactics such as remotely disabling hardware on a whim.

The important thing to take away from all this: using a manufacturer’s hardware, especially when sold as a closed system, is trusting that manufacturer. When you use your Windows PC, play games on your Xbox 360, or use your Zune for playing music or video, you are trusting Microsoft. When you use your iMac or MacBook, or use your iPod for playing your music or video, you are trusting Apple. When you use your Kindle for reading e-books, you are trusting Amazon. The use of these devices and proprietary software are the transactions that define entrusting the companies behind them. There is no way around it. Not surprisingly, you find very few bloggers like myself willing to take the gloves off and expose misdeeds of companies like Microsoft and Apple.

I recently observed someone carrying an iPhone in her dress/shirt pocket, clearly displaying the Apple logo to the world, as if to show it off. (I don’t think she’s one of my readers, but she might be.) Now, I don’t always call people out for things like this in person. But here, where I don’t need to worry about making a scene, I feel I can safely say that I’m not sure what kind of fashion statement that’s supposed to make. Maybe it’s “I’m a sheep,” “I’m a lemming”, or “I have no individuality.” Or maybe even “I think the Apple logo looks so cool I’ll give them free advertising.” Perhaps, it’s “I still like Apple even though they sold Baby Shaker for a few days and censored the EFF application for no good reason.”

I don’t know. Maybe someone out there can explain it. That’s why I have a comment section. (And I’m not even requiring commenters to sign up for an Intense Debate account first.)

More on Green Dam

This just in: even the government-run Chinese media story contains statements critical of Green Dam. In particular:

“Government power should not be abused and more transparency is needed,” said Yu Guoming, a journalism expert with the Renmin University of China.

“The real purpose of a forced installation is still being questioned. It is important to emphasize that the government is keen to protect people’s rights to information, civil participation, opinion and supervision,” Chen Lidan, a senior researcher on journalism with the Renmin University of China, said yesterday during an online forum on People’s Daily website.

“The IT industry knows there is no reliable system to ensure all content is safe on the Web, but Web users have a choice to view what content they want to view,” said Fang Xingdong, a Beijing-based IT expert.

If the Chinese government is willing to publish statements like these in its own media, one can only imagine what they are hiding.

China and censorship: the Green Dam fiasco

Maybe it’s just me, but the first thing I think of now when I hear “China” is “censorship.”

Two recent articles on Freedom to Tinker address the new “mandatory” Green Dam software. The first article by Dan Wallach exposes just how powerful censorship software becomes when installed on the end user’s PC. Since I doubt that Green Dam will be released under a free software license (this is China we’re talking about here) it also highlights just how dystopian things can get when one trusts proprietary, non-free software. This is either the bottom of the slippery slope or very far down it.

The second article by Ed Felten describes just how insecure Green Dam is. In essence it is a security breach waiting to happen. I’m not surprised. A quote from a University of Michigan report quoted within the article sums it up nicely:

Correcting these problems will require extensive changes to the software and careful retesting. In the meantime, we recommend that users protect themselves by uninstalling Green Dam immediately.

I honestly am quite surprised that the software would even allow for uninstallation given what it is designed to do (censorship) and where it is designed to do it (on PCs in China). If Green Dam does allow for uninstallation, this is the first thing any responsible PC owner in China who gives a damn about his/her freedom will do.  I personally build my own PCs when I can, and start with a clean hard drive when I can’t. It would honestly surprise me if neither is an option in China.