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Seeing the World through Google-Colored Glasses

What is Google’s role in your use of Google Glass? An interesting discussion at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference raised some points that both clarified and contradicted some assertions I made about Google’s futuristic eyewear in “Pondering the Social Future of Wearable Computing” (29 May 2013).

In my earlier piece, I speculated at length about the various social restrictions and cues that could affect how Google Glass is perceived by and used amongst the general public. What I was not aware of is that Google has set up its own mechanisms by which it can steer this discussion, and these mechanisms are enforceable through both technological and legal means.

Specifically, Google has established a separate Glass Terms of Sale, which at first glance appears similar to the End User License Agreement (EULA) that accompanies nearly all commercial software. There are two sections to the Terms: a general section that applies to all Glass devices (and which presumably has been written with the next generation in mind), and device-specific sections for each Glass release, which currently includes only the beta Glass Explorer Edition. If that weren’t enough, Google explicitly mentions some Google services (such as Wallet) that are required to purchase Glass, and that the terms of service for these and any optional apps are fully enforceable in
addition to the Glass terms.

What stands out in the overall Glass terms of sale are the rules regarding resale: which is to say, you can’t. Like a real-world Tamagotchi, once you buy Glass, it’s yours for life, with the exception that you can give your Glass to someone. This perhaps makes sense as part of the Glass Explorer program, in which Google has a vested interest in keeping its beta version out of the hands of the general public. The resale restriction, plus explicit limitations on the number of Glass devices you can buy, might be considered a method of restraining the creation of a lucrative aftermarket.

But the “no resale” restriction isn’t part of the Explorer-specific terms; it’s contained in the general Glass terms. This strongly implies that Google intends to keep a very short leash on future Glass sales, limiting sales of new devices by geographic location, limiting the number of devices that an individual can purchase, and preventing resale.

This is a limitation with teeth: Google acts as the gateway to all of the services that make Glass an interesting gadget instead of an expensive fashion statement. Violate Google’s terms of sale for Glass, your specific Glass device, or any of the individual Google services available on Glass, and you may find your overall Glass capability severely restricted or even shut down. As I understand these terms, Google can’t necessarily affect your ability to use Glass with third-party apps from Google Play or sideloaded onto your device, but the company technically can delete or disable Glass services that violate Google terms or legal restrictions, and the company also has the technical capability to deactivate the entire device.

This is a step beyond the “kill switch” built into the iPhone that Apple could use to delete malicious apps remotely (Google also built a similar system into Android). More recently, the term “kill switch” has been applied to the forthcoming iOS 7 Activation Lock anti-theft feature, which requires your Apple ID and password to turn off Find My iPhone or to reactivate the phone if you erase the phone remotely. But neither of these go as far as the Google Glass terms of sale.

The ability to deactivate a device entirely makes Google’s terms much more interesting, from a social perspective, than the usual EULA that states “all your softwares are belong to us.” Google isn’t restricted from updating these terms of sale in the future, and presumably would protect itself from any breach of contract that might arise from revised terms with a generous refund policy. This refund policy is already spelled out explicitly in the terms of sale, although it’s couched as a voluntary measure should a buyer “decide” that Glass doesn’t meet his or her needs.

Apply these terms to my prior discussion of the social norms of using Glass, and what you end up with is Google having both a central control mechanism and the power to mandate what Glass usage is acceptable and what is not. Picture the inevitable Tumblr blog that will arise of inappropriate Glass photos taken without the subjects’ knowledge; now imagine Google tracking those images (using one of a half-dozen methods I can imagine) to the Glass users who took them, and shutting their devices off as either a warning or a permanent measure.

Alternatively, and more likely at first, Google may attempt to take a laissez-faire approach, and exercise control only in cases of illegal activity, or some other bright line drawn outside the company. This is probably what most Glass wearers (or at least, the subset who read the Terms of Sale) expect from Google. But that won’t protect the company from public clamor demanding stricter Glass control, now that Google has invented a control mechanism and publicized its existence.

I’m not sure whether the existence of a control mechanism is an overall positive or negative for Glass adoption — sometimes, it’s better if there’s no one who can be pressured in response to social or legal action. Napster was shut down, but BitTorrent can’t be. But it did not initially occur to me that centralized control could exist, let alone that Google would explicitly reserve it. That adds an interesting wrinkle to the next few years of Glass and other wearable computers, since other companies may either attempt to follow suit, or explicitly avoid doing so to provide more explicit control to their customers. That said, few companies would have the sort of control that the likes of Google, Apple, Microsoft, and
Amazon can bring to bear.

For example, the Recon Jet Pilot heads-up display glasses, which are not related to Google Glass, are built on a heavily forked version of Android. Recon could choose to exert control over its own developer program for software specific to Jet devices, but doesn’t have access to the overall operating system unless they’ve taken the extreme trouble to modify it to provide that kind of control. This is possible with an Android fork, but very difficult. Google, on the other hand, gets the same abilities “for free” by virtue of controlling Android and the many Web services that Glass relies on.

The question is, of course, how all this will be taken by Glass early adopters and potential Glass customers, who may not be thrilled about spending many hundreds of dollars on a gizmo that could be disabled in response to some fine-print-violating action. I’d wager that the vast majority of Glass early adopters will be completely unaware of this risk until Google has its version of Amazon’s ironically Orwellian 1984 fiasco. Afterwards, their hyperawareness of Glass terms may run headfirst, so to speak, into other groups demanding that Google use its power to protect the general public from Glass wearers. Or perhaps not; it’s not as though
Kindle sales have exactly slumped in the four years since Amazon deleted some customers’ digital editions.

Many thanks to Alexander Hayes, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wollongong, for his insights that led to this article.

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