We’re at the Mercy of Service Providers

Yesterday I mentioned the changes Microsoft made to its terms of service and touched on the one sided licensing agreements to which users must agree in order to use Microsoft’s services. Today I want to take the discussion one step further by explaining the dangers these one sided agreements have to users integrated into entire company ecosystems.

Imagine that you, like many people, are heavily tied to Microsoft’s ecosystem. You have an Xbox 360 and an Xbox One. You play games online with your Xbox Live Gold membership. Your home computers all run Windows 10. You use Outlook.com for e-mail. You’re a developer who relies on Visual Studio to do your job and utilize One Drive and Office for online collaboration with coworkers. When you’re traveling to customer sites, you rely on Skype to keep in touch with your family. Your Microsoft account pretty much touches every facet of your life.

Now let’s say you’re on a work trip. While talking to your wife on Skype you say and offensive word and somebody at Microsoft just happens to be monitoring the session. Perhaps this individual is a stickler for the rules, perhaps they’re just having a bad day. Either way they decide to exercise Microsoft’s right under the terms of service to which you agreed to terminate your Microsoft account right then and there. Your Skype session terminates immediately. You can no longer access your e-mail. Your entire trip to the customer site is wasted because you no longer have the tool you need, Visual Studio, to do your job.

The trip was a complete loss but the pain doesn’t stop there. When you get home and decide to blow off some steam by tearing apart people online, you find that your Xbox Live subscription has also been terminated. You aren’t even able to play offline games because you purchased them all via the Xbox One Store and the licenses for those purchases were tied to your user account, which was terminated. Much of your life has come to a grinding halt because one Microsoft employee monitoring your Skype session decided to terminate your account.

While one could accuse me of hyperbole for concocting this scenario, it is a very real possibility under the terms of service to which you agree when signing up for a Microsoft account. The terms of service give you no power and Microsoft absolute power. Microsoft can make whatever rules it wants whenever it wants and your only options are to submit or not use its services.

Microsoft isn’t even unique in this regard. The same one sided agreements are made when you create a account with Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, or pretty much any other service provider. The sad truth is that most of us rely heavily on accounts that we have no real control over. Your Google account could be suspended tomorrow and with it would go your Gmail account, any apps you’ve purchased for Android via the Play Store, revenue derived from YouTube ads, etc.

The licensing model ensures that we don’t actually own many of the things that we rely on. The one sided agreements to which we agree in order to access services that we rely on ensure that we have no recourse if our accounts are suspended. We’re effectively peasants and our lords are our service providers. What makes this situation even worse is that it’s one we helped create. By submitting to one sided agreements early on, we told service providers that it’s acceptable to take all of the power for themselves. By being willing to license software instead of owning it, we told developers that it’s acceptable to let us borrow their software instead of purchase it. We put ourselves at the mercy of these service providers and now we’re finally faced with an absurdly high bill and having regrets.