We've written before about the drawbacks of the vaunted "Internet of Things." For one thing, equipping common household products with Internet connections endows your home with unexpected security gaps. For another, it gives manufacturers and sellers of "smart" projects far more control over you as a customer than you know.
This cutting-edge connectivity can tempt merchants or manufacturers into abusing their powers. But the experience of "R. Martin," the buyer of a "smart" garage door opener named Garadget, provides a perfect example. Martin ran into trouble installing the device and let the world know. But it's safe to say that it's the manufacturer who ended up learning a bitter lesson.
Here's the story, as pieced together from an item at ArsTechnica and an interview we conducted with Denis Grisak, the manufacturer.
Garadget is a device that attaches to your garage-door opener to allow it to communicate with a smartphone app via the Internet. The device can detect if your garage door has been left open too long and send a warning to the app. The owner can then remotely close the door. Users who have misplaced their openers can open and close the door with the app instead. According to the manufacturer, the $99 device is easy to install.
R. Martin didn't find that to be so. Martin couldn't get the app to communicate with the device after several tries, or so he stated on the Garadget website. "Wondering what kind of piece of ... I just purchased here." (Comment edited for taste.) Martin followed up with a one-star review on Amazon, where he advised potential buyers, "DO NOT WASTE YOUR MONEY" and asserted that the start-up manufacturer "obviously has not performed proper quality assurance tests on their products."
More than 20 other customers had posted negative reviews on Amazon, complaining about the same dysfunction or others. But it was Martin's that got under Grisak's skin. He responded with a post of his own on his website, objecting to Martin's "abusive language," informing the customer that he was "not going to tolerate any tantrums," and stating that he was denying Martin's unit access to the Garadget Internet connection. "At this time your only option is to return Garadget to Amazon for refund," he said. That brought an additional pile of criticism on Grisak's head, thanks in part to the publicity provided by the ArsTechnica article.
"Obviously it was a mistake," Grisak told us this week. "I was overprotective of my product and it was hard to take this criticism. It's not going to happen again." A 40-year-old immigrant who came to the U.S.from Ukraine in 2003, Grisak is the device's inventor and distributor. He points out that Martin wasn't in danger of being locked out of the garage or being unable to close the door, since the device hadn't been activated. He ascribes his own reaction to inexperience and the pressures of operating as a one-person start-up — his Grand Junction, Colo., firm, Softcomplex, seeks its capital through the cloudfunding service Indiegogo. "I don't think this would happen in a bigger company," he says.
He adds that his experience in business is as an I.T. consultant, where one can avoid troublesome clients simply by refusing a contract. "That obviously isn't going to work with this industry."
Grisak is wrong about one thing. Not only could this happen in a bigger company, but it does. Cases are proliferating of the abuse of customer ownership rights by major companies. Perhaps the best known cases involve Amazon. In 2009, the big online retailer unilaterally remotely deleted certain e-versions of George Orwell's "1984" and "Animal Farm" from users' Kindle e-readers. The reason was that the versions had been unauthorized copies of books that were still under copyright. But nothing in the customer agreements allowed Amazon to reach across the cloud into the customers' Kindles.
Amazon settled a lawsuit over the action in part by agreeing never to do that again, unless it's ordered by a court of law, the digital file contains malicious code, or the customer fails to pay. Then, in 2012, Amazon unilaterally shut off the access of Norwegian business consultant Linn Nygaard to all her Kindle ebooks. The account was restored after the episode received worldwide publicity, but as far as we can tell, the company never explained why it was closed in the first place.
Last year Google announced it would disable smart-home hubs made by Revolv, a company it acquired in 2014, presumably so it could steer customers to Nest, another of its smart-home subsidiaries. The action turned Revolv's $300 units, which remotely controlled house lights, alarms and doors, into useless bricks.
Part of the problem here stems from consumers' lack of awareness that they're not actually buying ownership of a digital item, whether a book, song, or movie, but just a license that allows them to read, listen, or watch under limited circumstances. Consumers don't know this because the button they click to pay for the item typically says "Buy Now."
Another aspect of the problem is that the "Internet of Things" grants manufacturers, retailers, or mere strangers continuing access to unsecured, network enabled content or devices. This is a security and privacy issue for consumers, and a temptation for sellers.
And yet another factor is a culture among cutting-edge businesses that they're doing their customers a big favor by allowing them to buy their goods or services. This is the toxic "bro culture" in Silicon Valley documented by tech writer Dan Lyons, most visible in the behavior of Uber, the transportation company that has felt little compunction about raiding its passengers' personal information for its executives' jollies or its corporate benefit.
But it's also visible in the reaction of Elon Musk, the co-founder and chief executive of electric car company Tesla, to a public diatribe by veteran venture investor Stewart Alsop. After Alsop complained about a disorganized 2015 launch event for Tesla's top-of-the-line Model X, Musk canceled Alsop's order for the gull-winged car and returned his $5,000 deposit. Musk's defense of his action on Twitter, as it happens, was cited by Grisak in his initial response to R. Martin.
Grisak, at least, today is fully alive to the pitfalls of treating customers like supplicants who should count themselves lucky to be in the market for a car, an ebook, or a garage opening device and should take what they get.
"This was a case of a creator being in control of everything and making a mistake," he says ruefully. Of R. Martin, he says, "I should have bought him back with kindness."