Guess what? You don't really own your phone

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra review
Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra review (Image credit: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central)

The Lithuanian Defense Ministry wants you to "throw away" your Chinese smartphone. Seriously — it advises you not to buy any smartphones made by Chinese companies and to throw away the ones you might already own because of the software that powers them.

This stems from research that shows how flagship phones from Xiaomi, which are also some of the best Android phones, built for the European market, can detect and remotely censor things like any expression of freedom for Tibet or Taiwanese independence. Of course, this isn't all of the story. As many of us understand, this is normal for products sold in China — even Apple and Google bow to Chinese regulators when necessary. As we've seen before, sometimes Western software versions from Chinese brands leave tracking and censorship tools in place.

To be perfectly clear: We reached out to Xiaomi directly, and a company spokesman adamantly denied actual wrongdoing regarding Xiaomi censorship:

"Xiaomi's devices do not censor communications to or from its users. Xiaomi has never and will never restrict or block any personal behaviors of our smartphone users, such as searching, calling, web browsing, or the use of third-party communication software.Xiaomi fully respects and protects the legal rights of all users. Xiaomi complies with the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)."

So you probably don't really need to toss out your new Xiaomi phone. But this does lead to a more extensive conversation around who really owns the product when you buy a smartphone. Hint: It's not you. Welcome to the wonderful world of copyrights.

When you purchase a phone, you own the physical parts you can hold in your hand. The display is yours. The chip inside is yours. The camera lenses and sensors are yours to keep forever and ever. But none of this, not a single piece, is worth more than its value in scrap without the parts you don't own but are graciously allowed to use — the copyrighted software and firmware that powers it all.

You're only leasing the software.

The companies that hold these copyrights may not care how you use the product you paid a license for, and you don't hear a lot about them outside of the right to repair movement. Xiaomi, like Google and all the other copyright holders who provide the things which make a smartphone smart, really only wants you to enjoy the product enough to buy from them the next time you purchase a smart device. Xiaomi pissing off people who buy its smartphones isn't a good way to get those same people to buy another or buy a fitness band or robot vacuum cleaner.

When you set up a new phone, you agree with these copyright holders that you'll use the software on their terms. You also agree that the copyrighted works are subject to being altered anytime, but not by you — we call those updates.

Android code

Source: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central)

This is a good thing and a bad thing. Every creator deserves to profit from their work, and if an amicable agreement between you and them can be made, then everything is good. The not-so-good part (usually) arises when the company that does own everything has ideas about improvements that you don't agree with. That's when heavy-handed ways of monitoring your photos can happen. Or when software could make sure you don't post pro-Democracy in China content to social media.

But it isn't going to change any time soon. For many of us, it's not even a concern because it has very little effect on the day-to-day use we get from our phones. But maybe it should. Maybe, even if you aren't concerned about censorship or that "big tech" can monitor the photos you upload and download, you should want a revamp of the situation. Phones aren't cheap. We should demand a little more.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • Not ever going to buy a phone from a Chinese company...
  • Yeah, I said that up until 2 months ago.
  • The point of the article applied to American and Korean phones too.
  • Most phones are produced in China any way, and who is to say that nothing is installed in any phone that censor free speech? About time we started top produce phones in the U.K and other products, fed up with everything being made in China. I even saw dog food that is made in China today. Getting stupid.
  • He's not talking about the hardware the phone is comprised of. It's about the software installed on the phone.
  • You think dog food is a search an where the vast majority of pharmaceuticals comes from! You guessed it....
  • You don't own any software you "buy". You own a license to use the software. It's a law that has to exist because the alternative would break down after the sale of one software.
    You do own the hardware, despite what some brands tries to imply. You also do own your consumer rights, despite what those companies tries to imply.
  • Wow... More ********. I'm owning a Chinese phone but I dun face censorship when googling any stuff. Including stuff concerning Taiwan independence movement and tibet freedom whatever. I tell ya. There's no limit to bullshiting.
  • Preloading software that is remote controlled by a foreign government to allow them to control what you read and see is criminal conspiracy and we saw in 2016 what happens when we allow that. I say, ban any brand indefinitely that keeps doing **** like this.
  • It's not ********. You just don't realize how it's being done. If you'd actually do some research , you might actually learn something instead of blindly accusing.
  • How about the right to root my phone so I can use the hardware as much as I like?
  • I know I still don't own the software on my phone, but that's always been in case with all software.
    My Pixel 3XL does have an unlockable bootloader, I actually plan to put calyxOS on it to play with when I get a Pixel 6. I think unlockable bootloader's are the best you can do with smartphones.
    Even then you don't own the hardware firmware, but what can you do. Software will always be licensed not bought, even open source software is technically licensed for your own use or alteration and there are a few stipulations on its use.
  • I'm happy with our new Chinese overlords.
  • I think at the very least, the software makers shouldn't be able to spy on our photos or restrict our content access on the devices we paid for.
  • Until North America can find someplace else to manufacture parts + assemble smart phones & tablets (we trust Korea, right?) We rely on China for assembly manufacturing distribution .... but I'm only interested in Devices I can find in the Stores (yes that limits what I obtain, but I'm not buying online only!).
  • Don't buy Chinese products, period. You're supporting a despotic one-party regime that has no regard for human rights. And avoid Chinese produced goods too, as far as possible. No H&M t-shirts made in China. No noodles produced in China. No cheap chargers produced in China. If they can't sell their Chinese produced garbage, the Western companies enjoying low-wage no-rights Chinese labor will find somewhere else to have them produced, and the Chinese regime will be forced to learn new and better ways, or face economic decline.
  • This is why I have advocated for a fee for software updates. Instead of having to buy a new phone very two or three years due to a lack of updates...battery longevity not included...we could choose to pay a reasonable fee for continued support for as long as we want to keep a phone. Then it can be said that we do own the software also!
  • Install Custom ROM and be in control of your phone, I will always buy Xiaomi Phones but will root and install Custom Custom ROM. Simple as ABC
  • You don't know if you're being filtered because it just doesn't show up. It may show 100 other results except for the results the Chinese don't want you to see. That's how it works. That's why it's been so hard to detect until Lithuania managed to find how it was being done.
  • Well the Lithuanian Defence Ministry may have a valid point...
  • Never trust anything from any government; the Lithuanian government is in its worst relationship with the Chinese government right now, so they can throw out any false/misleading information. How do you trust any statement from a tiny country's Defence Ministry? I call it total BS. Don't you think other major EU countries such as UK or Germany can find that out first? This is like blindly trust any words coming out of the CIA.