Sonos triggers a fight over privacy with new data rules for audio devices
The endless debate over Internet privacy is now coming through home audio systems.
The controversy was ignited when a Sonos spokeswoman said that failing to agree to the policy could eventually cause Sonos speakers to stop working altogether.
That statement prompted a lawsuit Wednesday, from a Boston resident and Sonos customer who argued he shouldn’t lose the use of his $1,000 audio system if he refuses to share more information.
Sonos, which is based in Santa Barbara, Calif., but maintains an engineering office in Massachusetts, said the customer and his attorneys have misunderstood the policy.
But the conflict illustrates a growing sensitivity about the sharing of personal information with Internet-based companies. It also taps into the concern that makers of computer-based devices, from audio speakers to farm tractors, may try to control how purchasers use their devices through the software that makes them work.
For instance, the Chinese drone maker DJI has announced a mandatory update of the software for its Spark drones. Any Spark drone not updated by Sept. 1 will be deactivated, or “bricked,” in tech speak.
Sonos makes high-fidelity speakers that connect to a home data network and allow streaming of music from dozens of online sources, such as Apple Music and Spotify. With a smartphone app, a Sonos user can control the sound in any room of the house, adjusting the volume or playing different tunes in different rooms.
Last year, Sonos announced it was adding voice-control features to its products and making them compatible with Amazon.com’s popular Alexa speech-control system. Users who own an Alexa device will be able to control it with speech as well as with smartphone commands. Sonos still hasn’t said exactly when it will offer Alexa compatibility.
The policy also calls for Sonos to automatically begin collecting error data when a Sonos system malfunctions. This is a common practice to help tech companies spot defects in their products. Sonos also wants to collect diagnostic information about a feature that adjusts audio output according to the size, shape, and furnishings of rooms.
The lawsuit was triggered when Sonos spokeswoman Laura Morarity told the online tech trade journal ZDNet that users who don’t agree to the new rules will no longer receive software upgrades for their speakers.
“Over time the functionality of the product will decrease,” Morarity said. “The customer can choose to acknowledge the policy, or can accept that over time their product may cease to function.”
Jason Leviton, the attorney for Sonos customer Jason Solomon, said the policy violates a Massachusetts law that bars companies from interfering with the use of a product or object that a consumer has already purchased, and another that protects a person’s right to control his or her own property.
Leviton said the Sonos policy is “a problem because you don’t have a choice . . . In Massachusetts, that’s simply not allowed.”
Leviton’s colleague Jake Walker said that while personal computers, smartphones, and other digital devices require software updates to keep working properly, there’s no reason a set of audio speakers should need new software to keep playing music.
“The expectation of a consumer who buys a speaker is that the speaker will continue to work,” Walker said.
But Morarity said the company’s critics don’t understand how Sonos works. Because it connects to music sources over the Internet, the system may need software updates just to stay connected to a customer’s favorite music sources. For instance, if an online music source changes its Internet address, the new address is relayed as an update to the Sonos app. Users who don’t update their software will lose service altogether. Little by little, more and more of their favorite sources, perhaps all of them, could become inaccessible.
“It could be three years, it could be five years,” Morarity said. “We don’t know the exact time.”
And when Sonos’s current speakers become Alexa-compatible, Amazon will not share its recordings of customers’ voices with Sonos.
“There’s nothing insidious here,” Morarity said. “We’re not listening to people. We’re not harvesting data. We don’t sell your data. We have never sold your data.”
Solomon wants Sonos to be prohibited from degrading the performance of speakers owned by customers who won’t agree to the new policy, as well as attorneys’ fees and unspecified monetary damages.