Right to Repair

Welcome to DRM Water: GE’s Dumb Money Grab

Note: Since this post was originally published, the GE FILTERGATE site has gone down. An archived version of the site shows an addendum/correction in which the author notes that “the fridge would, in fact, continue to work[,] just would roll over to a days-past modeif a non-GE water filter was installed. In other words, the claim that the refrigerator would shut off the water tap was erroneous; the fridge would instead show an unremovable warning/annoyance, with an updating daily counter, until you installed an official GE filter (or, as suggested, glued the bypass filter’s chip sticker onto the sensor).

It’s my fault for not doing more to question a sensational story. The source post was documented with uncanny detail, and, sadly, the narrative of DRM water filters was believable (and, technically, still partly true). I apologize for having made GE’s fridges (technically Haier under GE’s brand) seem more owner-hostile than they are.

The rest of this post remains as it was, partly for posterity, partly because it wouldn’t make much sense to try and retro-fit it. I hope to learn from this one. ~ Kevin P.

You know what’s important? Water. Water is the base layer of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, because you can’t live long without it. Myself, I am a fan of water. Particularly the pure, clean, filtered, ice-cold variety.

But you know who doesn’t want you to have some water, unless you pay them $50 for one of their water filters? General Electric. What follows is a cautionary tale, one of hubris and capitalism, one we fear is becoming all too common.

“Have you ever p**** off a customer so much they bought a domain and stood up a website to s*** on your asinine and boneheaded business practices? GE just did.”


It starts when one GE fridge owner, late at night, was surprised to see a countdown timer on their fridge. They later realized their fridge was going to actually block the water tap and ice maker if they didn’t insert a new official GE filter. Said fridge owner became so enraged, they made this single-page web masterpiece: GE FILTERGATE.

You really need to read the whole (rather profane) thing. It has passages where pure distilled rage is laid out to bloom. It labels GE’s RFID-checking circuit board the “Integrated Führer Board (IFB).” It references Magnuson Moss and similar DRM debacles, like Keurig’s proprietary coffee cups. The fiasco so motivates the owner that they resort to using a Dremel and painter’s tape to bypass the lock.

Removing the “Okay to dispense water” RFID chip from a bypass filter, so it can be taped onto the DRM circuit board in the fridge. Photo: GE FILTERGATE

GE FILTERGATE (it deserves to have its title kept all-caps) sparked interesting threads on Reddit and Hacker News. Some commenters mention the Right to Repair, and for good reason. It’s the same monopolist/paternalist thinking involved in not allowing you to swap your own home button or fix your own tractor. It’s a way of ensuring that the manufacturer, not the consumer, decides when it’s time to spend more money.

It is, as one highly up-voted Redditor puts it, “So much engineering just to (f***) the customer.”

It looks like this customer-hostile approach may be backfiring. Some of the top-rated posts indicate shifting purchasing preferences.

  • “Thanks for the post, we are researching appliances and we will vote with our dollar. GE is on our black list” — Robepa2
  •  “When my friend bought his house he was lucky enough to have a refrigerator with the same ‘feature’. Luckily I was able to warn him right away so he could gather supplies for the bypass … Never again will I ever consider GE Appliances and I’m always sure to warn people.” — bronco21016

It’s notable that the process for asking the Copyright Office for exemptions to section 1201 of the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) is ramping up right now for the 2020/2021 cycle. Last time we pushed the Office, iFixit helped unlock exceptions for voice-powered AI assistants, new cellphone unlocking, and, notably, home appliances.

Perhaps we need to push this year for overcoming DRM measures that … block people from receiving water from their own home’s plumbing? You think you’ve seen everything, and then you see someone sawing open a filter to enable wireless authenticated drinking water.