Saturday, November 18, 2023

Online subscriptions: Giveth and Taketh Away

Like many, I too have a gmail account. And I have used it to buy magazines, tv shows, and even subscriptions. My reason is the same as everyone else: it is convenient. Recently I received an email stating

Here is the text version, so people can translate to their language or jut be able to read it without having to rely on the image:

Since 2020, new purchases of magazines have not been available in Google News and very few users now regularly access their magazine subscriptions. We wanted to inform you that support for magazine content in Google News is being discontinued beginning on December 18, 2023, which means access from Google News apps or to the library of magazines you previously purchased or subscribed to will be removed. To continue to access previously purchased magazine content, you must export and save each purchased issue before December 18, 2023.

Claiming this to be a security or even privacy topic may sound like a bit of a stretch, but hear me out. When you buy a TV show, movie, or even magazine subscription through Google, Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or whoever, unless you can download that to your computer and view it without needing to use their website or app, you may lose access to them for different reasons:

Technical issues.

People have reported ebooks purchases they made and downloaded to their book reader -- usually a phone app or Kindle -- one day are no longer in their devices. Or said books are no longer even listed in their accounts. Or, even when said books are in their devices, pages are/became missing. Contacting the publisher (or should we call them streaming providers as they may only be licensing the sale/distribution of the product?) can lead to hours if not months of frustration; they may be equally baffled for the reason of these problems.

This also frustrates authors, whose present and future earnings is directly related to the popularity of their work: imagine if one of your books was #1 bestseller and then because of a computer glitch with the streaming provider it cannot be easily found, downgrading it to #150. This have happened already.

The Wikipedia Effect

Wikipedia is a living document: people are always editing and improving on its contents. So, what you have read last month may have been disputed and edited out of it. That leads to arguments that it should not be quoted as reference source. Some authors and producers may feel the initial version of their book or movie did not portray the story the way they intended and would love to be able to come back, months or years after publication, and change it. George Lucas is the posterchild of this.

With streaming that no longer means a new release: all the old versions can be now updated just like a computer program. I myself have seen shows whose opening credits for specific episodes have changed at least 3 times; the latest of which added hints to events in the episode which really do not add value to it. Bottom line is what you bought last year may no longer be what you have. Is this good or bad? That is up to you. In my opinion while there is a benefit for textbooks and study guides, when we are talking about a work of fiction or even a technical paper, that removes the power from you the buyer to decide which version you have. I am glad I am still able to see the original Star Wars trilogy without the cgi "enhancements" added later.

Licensing issues

Let me cut to the chase: you do not own what you paid for. According to the Amazon's Conditions of Use (not singling them out but it was the one I could easily found),

All content included in or made available through any Amazon Service, such as text, graphics, logos, button icons, images, audio clips, digital downloads, data compilations, and software is the property of Amazon or its content suppliers and protected by United States and international copyright laws. The compilation of all content included in or made available through any Amazon Service is the exclusive property of Amazon and protected by U.S. and international copyright laws.

The part I highlighted (boldfaced?) is the one we want to look at. All those Kindle books and movies and music you bought at Amazon Prime belong to Amazon or whoever they licensed it from. You only paid a license to access them, and contrary to social media sites and even companies you work at this license is not perpetual. There has been cases where, for instance, Kindle owners found books they purchased were removed from their accounts. And it does not end there: the Amazon Services Terms of Use states that this license can be revoked. While its words claims that termination only happens if they decide your are not in strict compliance with the agreement, they do reserve the right to decide if that is the case.

How does that affect privacy?

Some books or movies were removed from streaming sites because they were considered inappropriate; that in itself can mean many things including not politically acceptable. Your purchase/subscription records are in possession of these streaming providers. Depending on the location of residence, what can possibly be personal information -- they can be used to infer religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and so on -- is sold to other merchants, which will certainly use this data to create a profile on you (called an avatar) to better market to you be it by ads on free phone apps or even plain old emails. Others such as government and more criminal-minded organizations can also acquire the data for their own purposes.

How to minimize personal data exposure?

If you like a movie or a book, why not buy the movie on DVD/Blueray or the book either printed or at least as a PDF? At the very least now you own it in a way they cannot remove your access to it. You can find privacy-respecting DPF readers for most phones and computers. You can still convert the movie available in some electronic form so you can watch it without worrying about damaging the disk. There may be legality issues which are beyond this post but the technology is there. As a bonus, you do not have to worry about the content of your purchase changing from the version you paid for.