The User's Manifesto: in defense of hacking, modding, and jailbreaking

There’s a trend that’s been disturbing me lately. When the topic of modding or jailbreaking comes up — say, in the wake of the iPad announcement, or Sony’s restrictive PS3 update — there is an outcry. Who am I to tell Apple what’s best for their devices? How can I in good conscience urge others to void their warranties or break license agreements? And why should anyone care when only a small proportion of people hack or jailbreak their devices?

These questions are natural, because a few years ago they wouldn’t even be possible. What reason would you have for breaking open an first-generation iPod, or hacking an original Playstation? The question of “unauthorized software” on System 9 and Windows XP was plainly moot. But as the capabilities of the PC, console, and phone have expanded, so have their magisteria. And as their power grew, so did their chains. These chains were so light before that we didn’t notice them, but now that they are not only visible but are beginning to truly encumber our devices, we must consider whether we are right to throw them off. The answer, to me at least, seems obvious: no company or person has the right to tell you that you may not do what you like with your own property.

It really is as simple as that. But let me restate it so no one thinks I was just being deliberately dramatic or provocative. As long as what you are doing is restricted to the privacy of your home or person, no company, no individual, no designer or engineer, no manager, no CEO, can tell you what you may or may not do with a device which you have purchased legally. How could it be otherwise? It’s yours.

In other words, you may use your iPhone, PS3, Wii, iPad, TiVo, PC, and any other device you can think of as anything from home server to killer robot control core. Interestingly, it is for some reason far more controversial to oppose Apple’s wishes than, say, Microsoft’s or Sony’s, even when the nature of the opposition is identical (custom software running on a device, for instance). For that reason I’ll be using Apple as my primary example.

Now, this isn’t a license to do whatever you want, to whomever you want, at all times. There are several things that limit your freedom, and it is your responsibility to be aware of them: You may have signed a legally binding contract; the effects of your use may extend beyond what you can reasonably expect to be called your own home or person; there are laws governing certain kinds of use. Essentially, know that your device does not exist in a connective vacuum, and you do not live in a social or legal vacuum.

Let us say that you bought a hammer. The hammer is clearly designed for hitting nails, and it is sold at a hardware store, next to nails. Are you really restricted to using it for hitting nails? Do you need to buy a special license to photograph it, or use it to tenderize meat? Of course not. But if you stand outside hitting a bell with it all day, your neighbors may rightfully complain. And you can’t go around beating people with it, because that’s assault. I really don’t see why a more complicated device, more versatile, sure, but still a piece of hardware bought at a store, should be subject to fundamentally more stringent restrictions. Your use of the tool or device that you bought is limited only by law and your discretion. Acme Hammer company doesn’t get a say in what you do — and for that reason, they are not liable if you do decide to start hammering people.

That said, you may have signed (perhaps without noticing it) a legally binding contract. If you did so, read it. EULAs are meant to be not read, of course, because they are legal language presented to an end user, and the degree to which they are binding is probably going to be a topic for debate for years. Better to be safe: if you can’t read it, research it online and see what the gist is, or call support and ask. If you find that you have a reasonable chance of actually breaking a law and having that illegal act pursued by the company, reflect on that.

But also reflect on the fact that nobody thinks twice about crossing a street at 3AM when there are no cars, because jaywalking laws have no authority when the conditions they are meant to govern are not present. Can we say the same thing of license agreements? We can leave aside the complex philosophical debate that goes along with Law, Justice, and so on — we’re talking about simple cases here. Are you the kind of person who will wait at a “Don’t Walk” sign on an empty street? Then you probably live in Seattle (I see you people). Also, you’re probably not the jailbreaking type and you’re likely infuriated by what I’ve written so far. At any rate, the most extreme consequence for modding is usually a broken warranty and discontinued support. Oh no!

To illustrate this, here’s the relevant portion of the iPad license agreement:

You may not and you agree not to, or to enable others to, copy (except as expressly permitted by this License), decompile, reverse engineer, disassemble, attempt to derive the source code of, decrypt, modify, or create derivative works of the iPad Software or any services provided by the iPad Software, or any part thereof…

…This License is effective until terminated. Your rights under this License will terminate automatically or otherwise cease to be effective without notice from Apple if you fail to comply with any term(s) of this License. Upon the termination of this License, you shall cease all use of the iPad Software

Some will say that because of these you do not “own” the device you bought. But few will say what they mean, viz. that there is in fact no way for you to buy just the Apple hardware — you are actually prohibited from doing so, and are told told to please return the device for a full refund if you do not agree to the EULA for the software. Fortunately, such a flippantly restrictive license is as easy to ignore as it is to create. Make no mistake — such an act is surely “a violation of the rights of Apple.” A violation they will never know about, because there is no way they could ever know. They have as much effective jurisdiction over your home and person as they do over the dark side of the moon. Act accordingly. Many EULAs (Sony’s, for example) establish similar unlimited control, which one may (and often will, without knowing) also ignore with impunity as long as the license-granter or other users are not materially affected in any way. It is telling that the punishment for violating the license is effectively voluntary.

Although I just recommended a casual disregard for certain laws, you must remember that there are laws you ought to respect. Texting and driving comes to mind. That’s not “doing what you want with your device.” That’s putting the people and things around you in immediate danger. Likewise, it seems obvious that modders should refrain from behavior that strays beyond the bounds of their device or home. Have you broken your Xbox 360 to pieces, installed custom software, and are currently using it as a home media server? Great! Have you modded your PS3 so that it pulls extra packets in online games and causes everyone’s pings to rise? Not so great! Use discretion, and don’t be surprised if, when your practices affect more than just you and yours, you get taken to task for it.

Furthermore, don’t begrudge the companies their efforts to lock you out. It’s to their benefit, of course, to limit the use of their device to things they know work and which make them money. Apple’s a great example of this. Jobs has created a brilliant ecosystem of Apple-based services and devices which work best when working with each other. And by “work best,” I mean “work best for Apple.” If they also work best for you that way, great! You’re happy, Apple’s happy. But don’t tell me that I need to be the same way. And just because Apple works doggedly against people using their hardware for non-Apple-approved purposes doesn’t mean that it’s actually wrong or illegal to do so. Amusingly, many seem to think this is actually the case, for example the Apple store manager who called the cops when a customer showed him a jailbroken iPhone. It’d be funnier if this wasn’t such a popular delusion.

Finally, if you decide to hack or mod your device, you are essentially cutting ties with the company that makes and supports it. If that’s a problem for you, don’t do it. And if you do it, don’t complain. Your complaints will be ignored, as they should be. I hacked my PS2, and when it broke (I had resorted to using a SweeTart to keep one component at the right angle) I didn’t try to return it to Sony. I had made my bed, and I lay right down in it. You’ll have to do the same, even if you brick a brand new iPad while trying to flash its BIOS and install a second OS.

The reasoning and explanation above can basically be boiled down to a few basic laws. It seems to me that as long as you stay within these bounds, you should be free from prosecution and criticism.

Do no harm

Hacking your device should not affect anybody else’s user experience. If you break any laws, you should be the only potential victim.

Be informed

The risks you take are your own, and you should thoroughly research anything you’re thinking of doing. Don’t pretend cracking open your 360 or jailbreaking your iPhone is a trivial act.

Accept the consequences

You’re giving up your warranty and all the benefits that come with it. You may also be committing a crime.

But if you’re okay with all that…

Do what thou wilt

No one can tell you what to do with your property in the privacy of your home or on your person.

We’re on the frontier, here, which is why this debate is happening. It’s just a bit weird that people who were alarmed by Amazon sucking content off of Kindles are okay with Apple, Sony, and others dictating what you can do with a device you bought. It was only natural that they would try to extend their power to your living room once that was possible, but you can still shut the door in their face. Note that this discussion is not about content or piracy, although there are parallels. This is about the right to use a device as you will. Some of the same arguments apply, and just as information wants to be free, hardware is always at its best unfettered as well. But while there is legitimate dispute about the rights surrounding digital media, I don’t see any real objections to the hacks and modifications possible for your hardware and devices.

A popular objection is that one doesn’t have to buy the devices that happen to be wrapped up in restrictive systems or deliberately limited. Vote with your wallet, right? Sure, and even when you jailbreak or mod, you are doing just that. You bought the device most suited to your needs. With the iPad it’s the nicest tablet hardware out there and it has a big user base, which will prompt lots of interesting projects to develop — not all approved by Apple. And while the Apple-imposed limitations on the iPhone were less visible because of the highly-limited competition it leapfrogged, the iPad wears its chains on its sleeve with its lack of extra storage, single proprietary interface, and so on. The numbers of the curious and the dissatisfied will swell as the chains begin to weigh on them.

There are greater principles at stake here as well, but I think the simple utility of hacking our devices and the total lack of consequences for anyone involved are the only arguments necessary at this stage. I’ll leave the questions of property, privacy, and other rights to discussion by abler minds.

Lastly, I would like to humbly thank Apple, Sony, Microsoft, and all the others, for creating wonderful devices which I plan to enjoy to the fullest extent. But I humbly ask them, and everyone else, not to tell me what I can and can’t do with it once my purchase is complete. You should do the same.

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