'Take care, Neo: the Fridge has you': A technology-aware legal review of consumer usability issues in the Internet of Things

print-friendly
Miryam Bianco
January 2016

Consumer goods are increasingly becoming components of the Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure, as they are equipped with computing capacities and Internet connections. Through the examination of seven IoT consumer products currently marketed (e.g., Nest Learning Thermostat, Apple Watch), this paper investigates the main usability issues associated with them, as well as the potential legal implications of these issues, such as, for example, lack of product conformity, unfairness of contract terms, and abuse of dominant position. We show that the digital features of these products enable a much more heterogeneous technical and contractual configuration than their analog equivalents. Moreover, we consider the implications of the ubiquitous nature of IoT goods, that can be remotely monitored and controlled by their suppliers. Also, we discuss to what extent the use of IoT goods is dependent from other services, since software and/or data may be located outside the device, e.g., in the cloud. On the one hand, IoT goods might represent a tangible improvement of user experience. On the other hand, businesses might exploit IoT-specific features to increase consumer lock-in, and more generally reduce consumer ability to use and dispose of the products purchased. We suggest that a consumer-friendly approach to IoT could represent a competitive advantage, and should encompass, at least, the following aspects: ensuring full transparency of the terms of purchase and use; compensating for the lack of actual full ownership of the good; opting for open hardware and software, at least when necessary in order to ensure long-term provision of the service; considering consumers from a broader perspective, i.e. as citizens.