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Why Tech Companies Aren't Your Friends: Lessons from Roku| GuyWhoKnowsThings


This month, many of the 80 million owners of Roku devices, including streaming devices, set-top boxes and Internet-connected TVs that run the company's streaming software, turned on their Rokus to view a block of text. I, owner of a cheap Roku TV in my bedroom, was among those stuck with the screen.

The message provided updated terms of service that made it difficult for customers to take legal action against the company. Unless they agreed, users were blocked from accessing the Roku menu and apps, essentially bricking their devices. The only way to opt out was to send a letter to the company.

For Isaac Phillips, a software engineer in Tampa, Florida, this seemed unfair. He then came up with a solution to disconnect his Roku TV from the Internet and use it as a regular TV without the Roku apps, which include Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services.

“It should belong to whoever paid for it,” Phillips said. “Leaving someone completely out of this just doesn't seem right. “It is quite unacceptable.”

Also this month, Roku announced a security violation involving around 15,000 user accounts. The victims' login credentials were obtained illegally through a breach of another company's servers and were used to log into Roku accounts to purchase streaming subscriptions, according to Roku.

“Like many companies, Roku updates its terms of service from time to time,” the company said in a statement, adding that the change was not related to the breach.

Roku's bad month sparked discussions in online forums about what it means when a company can essentially disable the device you paid for. This is similar to how companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft can decide to stop releasing software updates for older devices, gradually degrading their performance.

It is a lesson we have to learn and relearn. Companies, even those that say they strive to delight us and improve our lives, serve their own interests. In reality, the technology products we buy can evolve to continue to protect those interests, and the obstacles we have to overcome to gain some control are often impractical. Here's a reminder of what to remember.

More than a decade ago, when we bought a television it was simply that: a large screen that allowed you to connect whatever you wanted. Today, the vast majority of televisions connect to the Internet and run the manufacturer's operating system and applications. Even if you purchased the TV, the software component, an important part of what makes the product work, is still controlled by the company.

Changes to the product's software interface and data collection practices may occur at any time. In extreme examples, a device may stop working. In 2020, for example, Amazon disabled Echo Look, a camera that helped people organize their closets. It issued a promotional credit for owners to purchase a different Amazon device that lacked similar features.

The least extreme and most common situation is when companies stop supporting older products because they need to sell new devices. Apple's original Apple Watch from 2015, for example, no longer receives software updates and barely works.

This problem is not new, but it has become more problematic as our devices rely on apps and Internet connections, said Nathan Proctor, director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization. With computers, consumers could modify their machines by installing a different operating system. But with many other types of electronic devices with locked software systems, from streaming devices to e-book readers, such modifications are typically not possible.

“When you get down to it, do you already own it?” he said.

Simply put, Roku's terms of service have long required that customers agree to resolve any legal disputes through a private forum, the process known as binding arbitration, which can prevent consumers who share the same complaints from joining together. to file lawsuits. The updated terms added language protecting the company from so-called mass arbitrations, where lawyers could file hundreds of thousands of individual arbitration claims, a tactic to fight arbitration clauses.

Mandatory arbitration clauses have become an industry standard. The terms of service of companies like Sony PlayStation, Vizio, and Hulu include similar language about arbitration, and those companies also require consumers to mail a letter to opt out of those terms.

Roku customers can opt out of the revised terms and continue using its products, but the process is not intuitive. First, they must press the “accept” button on the terms of service screen. Then, within 30 days, they must send a letter requesting an opt-out of the terms, along with a copy of the receipt for their Roku product, to Roku's general counsel at 1701 Junction Court, Suite 100, San Jose, California 95112.

A Roku spokesperson also provided a list of steps for those who want to use their Roku TVs as regular TVs without an internet connection. It involves pressing a button or hole on the back of the TV to reset the software and skip the step to set up the Internet connection.

Why is opting out harder than opting in? Because companies are legally allowed to do this.

I suggest Roku customers follow those steps to opt out of the new terms and preserve what little power they have. I, for one, took this opportunity to disconnect my Roku TV from the Internet and connect a different streaming device with less onerous terms, an old Apple TV. As for an opt-out letter, I plan to use the AI ​​chatbot ChatGPT to compose a testy note.

On the other hand, Roku customers who were especially vulnerable in recent weeks were 15,000 affected by a cyber attack known as “credential stuffing.” Hackers obtained usernames and passwords that were leaked elsewhere and reused them to log into Roku accounts. The lesson here is to create a strong, unique password for each Internet account you have and never reuse it for another site.

Like many technology companies, Roku has promoted itself as a company that has consumers' best interests at heart. Its website, adorned with wholesome photos of families watching television, invites you to join the millions of people who save money by cutting the cord. Its streaming devices, including the $20 streaming stick and the $290 55-inch TV, are also relatively inexpensive.

But any successful business exists to make money, not friends, and Roku's aggressive moves this month should make that abundantly clear.

With Roku and similarly inexpensive streaming products like Google's $30 Chromecast and Amazon's $40 Fire TV stick, you're largely subsidizing the purchase of the product by sharing your data with advertisers, said Jen Caltrider, director of Mozilla that investigates companies' privacy policies.

But Roku is a bigger offender, as it collects much more information than it needs to provide a device that runs streaming apps, including information. about your employment, education and religious beliefsshe said.

“Their privacy policy is a shining example of a terrible privacy policy for a consumer,” Caltrider said. “They are a company that accumulates data.”


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