Two weeks ago, 80% of Google Voice Actions were removed without warning or explanation by the parent company. These are the third party Voice Skills for Google Home devices or the Google Assistant.
We know now that it was done in response to multiple significant exploits highlighted by a team at Germany’s Security Research Labs. The exploits themselves (which also affect Amazon Alexa Skills) are concerning, and I’m sure will be dissected and debated for months to come. Beyond the exploits however, the situation is yet another example of the power held by the controllers of these closed systems. The impact that this power can have on users, developers and businesses may be subtle, until it isn’t.
In a closed system, the rules of engagement are written by the owner and can be changed or reinterpreted at the drop of a hat. There is no recourse for individuals and businesses who rely on these systems. We can Tweet at the company or post on Reddit, but these questions are often met with vague and incomplete information.
Last week, thousands of developers were in this exact position. Wondering why their work had been removed, and which unintelligible policy they had been accused of violating. Around the world thousands of hours were spent contacting support, reviewing code, and handling customer queries and complaints, with no real explanation as to what was going on. At least one company had their carefully planned product release completely derailed.
Using these closed systems we are completely at their mercy. When software, policies or a license agreement are modified, you have two options: accept the change; or walk away, abandoning everything you have invested so far. In extreme but not uncommon circumstances, the service may shutdown completely, leaving you with no option at all.
This is the danger of building your business on closed technologies, and forever handing that control to other people. I feel that as a society, we are only just starting to realise the impact that this power can have. A Voice Skill being taken down for a few days may seem minor, but consider the recent example of Apple revoking the enterprise license development keys from Facebook and Google.
Revoking these keys immediately shutdown the internal iOS apps used by both companies. In this instance, both companies were using those keys in a way that clearly violated Apple’s terms of service, and were doing so to collect data on users. The move was celebrated almost universally as a strong and positive decision. I agree that it was the right move, however it highlights quite starkly the immense power that a small number of companies, and an even smaller number of people within those companies, can weild. The ability to completely disrupt the operations of some of the largest companies in the world.
Just because the right decision was made, doesn’t mean it was made in the right way. I think we need to seriously reflect on the power we implicitly hand over to others in the course of our daily lives. Do I really want to be locked in to one vendor? Do I trust that they will not only respect my rights today, but in the years and decades to come? If the decision makers at this company changed, what could the impact be on me and my business?
If you want to control your own future, then you need to use open source software. For voice technologies, that’s Mycroft AI.
Gez is the Director of Developer Relations at Mycroft. He comes from the land down under, has a strange love of crocodiles, and one day hopes to play the ukulele. If he’s not hanging out in our Community Chat and Forums, he is probably getting lost in the bush.