Timothy M. Denton

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The right to repair and tinker, or Internet of Things 3

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News this morning from the American heartland - John Deere tractors have been sold under such stringent conditions that farmers are no longer allowed to make necessary repairs without the manufacturer's permission, and only by going through authorized dealers. Which means that the entire operations of a farm can be brought to halt while the ransom is paid to the manufacturer, who holds a monopoly power. Farmers are seeking Ukrainian software to evade the locks, and legislators are proposing right-to-repair legislation in Nebraska and four other states.

Jason Koebler reports:

 

To avoid the draconian locks that John Deere puts on the tractors they buy, farmers throughout America's heartland have started hacking their equipment with firmware that's cracked in Eastern Europe and traded on invite-only, paid online forums.

Tractor hacking is growing increasingly popular because John Deere and other manufacturers have made it impossible to perform "unauthorized" repair on farm equipment, which farmers see as an attack on their sovereignty and quite possibly an existential threat to their livelihood if their tractor breaks at an inopportune time.

"When crunch time comes and we break down, chances are we don't have time to wait for a dealership employee to show up and fix it," Danny Kluthe, a hog farmer in Nebraska, told his state legislature earlier this month. "Most all the new equipment [requires] a download [to fix]."

The nightmare scenario, and a fear I heard expressed over and over again in talking with farmers, is that John Deere could remotely shut down a tractor and there wouldn't be anything a farmer could do about it.

The degree of computerization of tractors, combines and other agricultural equipment is not less than the most advanced automobiles.

Lawrence Lessig foresaw this problem coming a decade ago. Extensions of intellectual property, the penetration of every device with software,  and the ability to enforce licences remotely, have expanded the power of owners of IP over users. He saw it occurring in many domains: how, for example, to decorate a movie set with the period furniture of the 1930s was becoming impossible because obtaining the permissions for each and every copyrighted object had become impossible. Intellectual property holders have the ability to shut down software remotely and compel obedience to their licences.

The consequences for a farmer of shutting down a tractor or a combine are far more devastating to him than the encumbrances of obtaining rights to use period decorations are to a producer shooting a movie. What might have looked like an effete concern of the creative classes in 2007 is starting to affect the price of food in 2017. The issues arising from Internet of Things go beyond the invasions of privacy I discussed in my last posting. They will keep manifesting relentlessly throughout all sectors of society for several decades to come.

 

 

 

 

 

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Timothy Denton is a lawyer by training who practices principally in telecommunications and Internet policy and domain name issues, with a strong concentration on explaining what the technology is and what it means.

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Guest Wednesday, 23 August 2017
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