Decision to unlock cellphone should be yours
Imagine you had to buy new phones when you switched your landline telephone service provider. Or suppose you took your laptop overseas but could go online only by connecting with your home broadband service company — at exorbitant international rates.
Cellphone owners face a similar situation as a result of a new and misguided federal policy that effectively makes all cellphones second-class devices. The rule risks further reducing competition in the cellphone industry, which is already basically a duopoly. And it puts consumers who want to “unlock” their cellphones from a particular service provider at risk of outrageous civil and criminal penalties.
The change, put in place by the Copyright Office in the Library of Congress, went into effect on Jan. 26 and is drawing fire from high places — and rightly so. The Obama administration last week said consumers ought to be able to legally unlock their phones, at least when they have completed their wireless contracts. And Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the wireless industry, said the rule “doesn't pass the common sense test.”
Genachowski and the White House were responding to a petition seeking to overturn the rule that drew more than 114,000 signatures. Most cellphones sold today are “locked” to a particular wireless carrier through software inside the phones that prevents them from being used on another carrier's network.
The locks are unfair and anticompetitive, but until recently, consumers didn't have to put up with them. Federal rules allowed consumers to break the software locks using a variety of legally available software.
Once phones were unlocked, consumers could use them with any carrier whose technology was compatible.
But under the new federal policy, consumers can no longer “unlock” their cell phones without risking civil and criminal penalties, including a prison term of up to five years and a fine of up to $500,000.
The policy stems from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a law passed in 1998 to update copyright law to protect intellectual property in the digital age.
The law sought to protect copyright owners who use technology to prevent the copying of their works. If a movie studio uses encryption to prevent a DVD from being duplicated, or if a software company uses digital rights management software to prevent a program being copied, the law makes it illegal to break those “locks.”
The law was never meant to bar consumers from switching their carriers. Unlocking cellphones has nothing to do with illicit copying, a fact the Copyright Office recognized in 2006 when it granted an exception to the law for that purpose.
But the Copyright Office has rescinded that exception in the new rule, arguing consumers can now find numerous brand-new unlocked phones for sale, and that carriers such as AT&T have policies in place under which they promise to unlock consumers' phones once they have completed their contracts. .
But carriers will unlock phones only if consumers meet certain requirements, such as showing their original proof of purchase. And consumers are still legally required to keep paying monthly subscription fees on existing contracts — or pay a pricey termination fee instead.
The new policy is not only unfair — it's just plain unnecessary.
Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Florida roommates find a career in playing video games on web channel Twitch
- Buyer’s remorse: Most mergers don’t work out for acquiring company
- Retailers court web customers with free shipping
- Company seeks to reopen coal mine in Nottingham, Washington County
- Stock forecast for 2015: milder gains, more bumps
- Holiday shoppers expected to spend conservatively
- Amusement parks fight off home entertainment threat
- State officials prompt UPMC, Highmark to go to mediation to resolve Medicare dispute
- Lower gasoline prices fail to spur consumer spending
- Westinghouse to construct colossal nuke plant in Turkey
- 5 apps to get the best prices this holiday season