What do you do when Big Tech cuts off your access to security and communication services?
I first came across Kim Kommando when I moved up to Alaska in 2003, teaching at the university in Juneau. The local radio station had a block of time in the Saturday morning slot and invited me to put together a tech-focused call-in program. My template? Kim Kommando. Her program focused on basic, how-to ideas helping people to effectively use computer technology. The people calling into my show had those same type of questions. While my program’s theme may have been something new and instructive for the audience, I had to remember that most people had very basic questions about how to get things to work.
So when I caught her short segment the other day on the radio talking about an Amazon customer getting totally canceled, it got my attention. I have never heard Kim dive into contemporary hot-button tech issues. It is evident she tries to steer clear of alienating a segment of her audience. Even her Wikipedia page is just a basic resume. But this event was most peculiar. It involved a delivery man (doesn’t say, but I presume it is Amazon), pressing a Ring doorbell and receiving a racist response. He registered a complaint with Amazon, the owner of Ring. And Amazon not only canceled the customer’s security service (Ring), but also his Alexa and Echo services. The Echo was integrated into his lighting system as well as “other devices.” In many homes where I have seen Echo devices, it controls heating and air conditioning. According to Wikipedia,
The Amazon Echo is able to connect to many different smart home devices. Thermostats, humidifiers, lightbulbs, plugs, dog and cat feeder, door locks, cameras, thermostats, security systems, speakers, WiFi, televisions, vacuums, microwaves, printers, and other smart home devices can now all be controlled through Alexa.
All of that was terminated, without warning.
The delivery man? The Daily Mail article does not say, but it is presumed he was African-American. The customer? Turns out he was also African-American. But not just any African-American. He worked as an engineer for Microsoft! He returned home, picked up the package and discovered that he was locked out of all his devices. He was provided a phone number to contact an “Amazon executive”. 1 He was then told, in a rather condescending tone, that he had delivered a racist remark to a delivery man.
Six days later – let me repeat, six days later – he got his services back. He learned his lesson.
What Can We Learn From This?
As the young engineer noted, his personal response is the same we should all follow. Diversify. I have written a couple of articles (see below) on this problem in regards to writers, podcasters and even presidential candidates. But it is now evident that ordinary consumers of computer technology need to take stock of how much dependence they have on Big Tech providers.
Yet what happens if “diversification” is limited? My laptop, for example, runs on a Windows 11 operating system. Anyone who has used Microsoft (MS) operating systems since Windows 10 can tell you the O/S is essentially an advertising platform for Microsoft. It is nearly impossible to root out the automated functions that communicate with MS, whether it is automated updates, news and weather and other metrics. What’s to prevent MS from simply “canceling” your operating system? HP is the manufacturer of the laptop and has similar inter-connective services running on the laptop. What is to prevent them from arbitrarily shutting down the system?
The second lesson is to affirm the value of due process. Our constitution, if not our Declaration of Independence, established the basic right of due process. Arbitrary accusations with immediate incarceration or punishment were simply unconstitutional. Yet this is what happened here. It turned out that the delivery man had been wearing ear-buds. He did not clearly hear what the doorbell was broadcasting. (There was nothing racist about the doorbell’s communication.) The customer was never asked to provide his side of the story. A judgment was made and the customer paid the price. It was a judgment not made from a panel of his peers, but by a faceless technician at Amazon. Alas, maybe Amazon needs to go to school in history and law. And perhaps marketing as well – for it is evident their staff are not qualified to try and convict customers of so-called “crimes”.
This case also provides a clearer idea of what should be regulated in regards to Big Tech (or any tech firm for that matter). Security and communication need to be established as essential services. As long as a customer is paying for a service, he or she should expect a measure of security and the ability to communicate. The Amazon Echo, in particular, controls vital aspects of the home environment. Is it appropriate to expect that basic functions such as heating, cooling, and internet access be guaranteed if a person is willing to pay for it?
As we have seen above, an essential service can be something such as security or communication. We recognize essential services in such things as phone service, electrical service and other utilities. Politics does not enter into the equation. People are free to ride a bus, a train or a plane. They can drive cars and use public roads regardless of their politics. These are often defined as “common carriers.”
But IT innovation has added more layers. “Communication” is more than just the assurance that you can use your telephone, it also includes the interaction with devices in your home and access to the Internet. “Security” is not just a padlock on the door, but the use of technology to monitor activities and provide some measure of protection. People should have access to these services regardless of their politics.
What is really interesting is the “right” to commerce. Notice I said right. Commerce is more than an essential service. It is a core aspect of the human existence. Try living without it! Commerce was integrated into the Declaration of Independence and a critical component of the US Constitution. Yet as we have seen with Canada and numerous examples from Bank of America, PayPal and others, financial institutions have, on their own accord, denied access to funds based on a customer’s politics. That has to stop and stop now!
An “essential service” definition negates the need of “user agreements” or “community standards.” Big Tech firms have used these two legal aspects of IT to determine who can speak and participate in various forums. In the case of the racist doorbell, they have extended this control to deny people security and basic communication without due process. In the case of BOA, Paypal and Go-Fund-Me, they have used these self-constructed standards to lockup thousands, if not millions, of dollars. No trial. No crime. Just politics.
One only has to take inventory of the devices in your life that interact with manufacturers. As noted above, Windows is highly interactive with Microsoft. Many hardware devices can have their firmware updated by manufacturers. What’s to prevent them from shutting down your hardware? What about your car?
What You Can Do?
At a personal level, guard yourself against using the same vendor for computer services. I use a Windows laptop for travel purposes, but I have two Linux systems at home. I would suggest you have two phones using two different carriers. Make certain that your Internet provider is different from your phone service. In this manner you can still use your Hot Spot in the event the Internet provider cuts off your service. As the young man in this case discovered, de-Amazonize. Use Alexa if you wish, but do not use Echo or Ring. Have multiple bank accounts, preferably one national or global bank, and one local bank.
Secondly, take stock of which devices communicate with manufacturers. Security cameras are almost all cloud-based, as are business phone systems. In my experience, I have had dashcams, printers and garage door openers that communicate through a manufacturer’s site. I have known individuals with medical devices.
Next, write your Congressional and state representatives. Courteously suggest to them a law that defines essential services and guarantees that these services are not withdrawn without due process. In other words, to lose access to these services you must have been proven to have committed a crime. These services should be provided to anyone, regardless of their politics, as long as they are willing to pay for them.
“Amazon shuts down customer’s smart home for a week after driver claimed he heard racist slur,” The Daily Mail, by Alyssa Guzman, June 13, 2023
Other Articles by Eric Niewoehner on the subject of diversification
- Disaster Recovery — The Case of Parler
- Are You Ready to Rumble?
- Robert F Kennedy, Jr. Presidential Campaign Banned from Instagram?
- Can PayPal Be Trusted?
1 While the article does not explain what an “executive” is, it is most likely a Tier 2 or Tier 1 (top-level) customer support person with adequate authority to make a cancellation decision.
© Copyright 2023 to Eric Niewoehner