One of the most annoying traps of digital life might be software upgrades that are secretly downgrades. I want to share a cautionary tale about a downgrade from Google that could end up costing you money. After much back and forth with me, Google described it as a “bug,” but it exposes an ongoing risk to our virtual future.
Reader Matt Hirsch from outside of Boston got in touch with Help Desk about a strange phenomenon on his Google smart speakers. He and his wife both used them to stream music from YouTube Music, a Google alternative to Spotify. But soon the music stopped working for his wife. She would hear ads before it would play a song she asked for.
One thing had changed. Hirsch and his wife recently activated the Google Voice Match service. This optional update trains Google Assistant, powered by artificial intelligence, to recognize different voices and present them with personalized responses. Voice Match can be useful if, for instance, you want to access individual calendars or shopping lists.
But the Hirsch family certainly had not expected Voice Match would keep their household from sharing a music account. Asked Hirsch, “Is this something that is intentional to get us to buy the family plan or an accidental oversight?”
When I told Google about his experience, the company initially denied it could happen. So I tried to replicate his situation using a Google Nest Hub speaker, which contains a small screen, with the help of the voices of a few family and friends.
Sure enough, the smart speaker would not let another Voice Match user in my house play from my own premium YouTube Music subscription. The other user got booted to the “free” version of YouTube Music with ads. Our choices were to have everyone join a more expensive family plan or turn off Voice Match.
The experience reminded me of the digital rights locks on music files you used to buy on the iTunes Store back in the day. Now the locks are on the modern world of streaming, and the only key is your own voice.
I shared the results of my experiment with Google, and it denied this could happen a second time. Only after I sent it a video of the experience did Google change its tune. “This issue is being caused by a bug impacting smart displays. We are working on a fix as soon as possible,” said Google spokesman Robert Ferrara.
The explanations of how Voice Match and music services work within a household are about as complicated as logic puzzles. The root of the problem is that Google products are built for individuals, whose data can be collected and advertised to, not homes filled with people who rightly expect they can all share in experiences like listening to music.
The Google policy is that if the owner of smart speakers has a music subscription, other members of the household can also access it. When the smart speakers do not recognize the voice of an individual, it defaults the music service to the owner.
How the technology monopoly made smart speakers dumber
But something clearly went haywire when the primary user of the speaker subscribes to YouTube Music and a second user turns on Voice Match. Things make more sense with Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri, which also have voice capabilities. I checked in with both companies, and neither cuts off other members of a household with voice matches from using a shared streaming music account.
The Google spokesman did not respond when I asked him to reply to the question from Hirsch about whether using voice identification as a lock was intentional. It may have just been an oversight from Google. But I also would not put it past a business development person in the company from thinking they could nickel and dime us to drive incremental revenue from YouTube Music.
We should push back against the idea that companies can use software updates to encroach on or change the functionality of devices we paid for. But we have seen it time and again with products such as printers that get updates to limit where you can source ink. We now have over a decade of reminders that when something connects to the Internet, you are not really in control of it.
My favorite example is even more ludicrous. In 2019, Nike released sneakers connected to the Internet that used an app to lace themselves. The company pushed out a software update that inadvertently broke some the motorized mechanism on the shoes, so they could no longer even lace up. The software update turned shoes into bricks.
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