Over two years ago, Sony BMG made a fateful decision to begin loading its music CDs with software designed to take control of consumer’s computers when loaded into the machine. Sony’s aim was to wrest control of the computer away from the machine owner in order to prevent the copying of the company’s music; but the plan would soon explode into the infamous Sony rootkit debacle.
As Ars Technica puts it, “a rootkit is a program or set of programs that allow a usually malicious user to maintain access to an compromised computer by sinking deep hooks into the OS.” Sony was not merely trying to govern what listeners could do with its music; it was attempting to control what users could do with their computers.
Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy of Homeland Security, issued one of the most succinct responses to Sony’s actions: “It’s very important to remember that it’s your intellectual property — it’s not your computer.” Sony had showed just how much regard it had for the property rights of its customers. But more than that, it had left these customers open to data loss and attack by hackers: “Sony’s application will utterly hose your Vista install… Sony’s rootkit provides a means of entry for other hackers to compromise your system.”
The truth will out, as they say. And in the case of Sony’s little experiment, it outed rather quickly. Less than a month after Mark Russinovich brought public attention to the rootkit issue, Sony stated it would stop distributing the copy-protection software on its music CDs.
The fiasco wasn’t over for Sony. A product recall and multiple lawsuits would soon follow — costing Sony several million dollars (a pittance given the size of the company and the seriousness of the offense) and no small amount of consumer goodwill. But as far as I know, Sony has never apologized for the rootkit decision or promised that such a technique will never be utilized again.
Here at home, I issued a complete Sony boycott. Dramatic, perhaps; but I was steamed at Sony’s utter hubris and contempt for its customers. We probably haven’t followed it perfectly — thankfully, the Transformers soundtrack turned out to be a Warner Brothers rather than a Sony BMG release — but by and large we have kept Sony products out of the home.
Thus as far as I can see, I will never own a Playstation 3. I will never own a Blu-ray player of any kind. (Sony is not the only party behind Blu-ray, but they are closely bound up with its success.) The latter shouldn’t be too hard: with the rise of digital downloads, high-definition DVDs were obsolete before they arrived on the scene. The next movie player I invest in is much more likely to be an Apple TV than anything built around optical media.
Sony items which were already in the home prior to the boycott were allowed to remain. Sony already had my money there, I figured. Discarding them wouldn’t do anything to hurt the company.
So why bring this up more than two years after the event? The reason is this: I like to lift weights, and I like to use my iPod while doing so. The thing with lifting weights is, if you employ any effort in the process, it makes it difficult to keep your face in a neutral configuration. And if your facial expression changes, so do the shape of your ears. (You can try this for yourself.) iPod earbuds aren’t designed to remain in place under these conditions, so I found myself needing constantly to readjust the little white nuisances.
It was time to try new earbuds. Offerings at the Apple store were divided between the $100+ stratum and that occupied by Apple’s own $40 in-ear offering. I’m not paying $100 for workout headphones, so Apple brand it was. Unfortunately, through some quirk of otology, these were even less inclined to remain in place than the standard earbuds.
One of the Sony products grandfathered in after the boycott was a pair of cheap blue earbuds with hooks designed to hang on the ears. Their design is mediocre. Their sound quality is passable at best.
They also stay on my head no matter what I try.
After all this time, wearing a Sony product centimeters from my brain makes me slightly ill — as if the earbuds might try to rootkit my cerebral cortex. But they work, and I’m running with it for now.
You’ve won this battle, Sony. But I still intend to win the war.