Everyone agrees this cellphone rule is dumb. So why haven’t we done anything about it?

November 16, 2013

(Eric Draper / AP)

For months, trying to unlock your cellphone so you can take it to another carrier has meant possible lawsuits or even jail time. Yes, switching your service from, say, Verizon to AT&T while using the same device is illegal.

Pressure has been mounting all year for a resolution of the issue, but so far, nothing's happened. What makes the situation even less comprehensible is how much everyone seems to agree this is a stupid rule. The White House thinks so. Congress thinks so. And now, the nation's top telecom regulator thinks so, too.

"It's now time for the industry to act voluntarily or for the FCC to regulate,"  the FCC's new chairman, Tom Wheeler, wrote in a letter to the wireless industry Thursday.

Wheeler's past as a wireless lobbyist himself makes the strongly worded letter all the more striking. So what's holding up a deal?

For one thing, wireless companies would rather not notify consumers when their phones become eligible for unlocking, as the FCC is asking. The reluctance is understandable; telling customers they can pick up their device and leave for another service just might persuade them to do so.

The industry likes a House bill that would allow consumers to start unlocking their phones again without having to ask carriers for permission. The proposal even allows third parties to help device owners do the unlocking. But there's no telling when it might get a vote in the full House, and even then, it would face a long, uncertain road before reaching the president's desk. It also doesn't eliminate the possibility of unlocking becoming illegal again someday. Last year, the Library of Congress decided not to renew an exemption for cellphone-unlocking under the nation's copyright laws, overturning a six-year history of approving the practice and creating today's impasse in the process.

If you're wondering why an archival bureaucracy has the power to determine what you do with your cellphone, it's because of a little law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes it a crime to bypass digital locks on content; when Congress passed the act in 1998, it charged the Librarian of Congress with granting exemptions to that rule. Every three years since the law was passed 2006, the Librarian of Congress agreed to renew the exemption. But by 2012, he had evidently changed his mind.

Restoring the exemption, as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) proposes, wouldn't change the underlying legal regime governing unlocking.

"Even if the carriers decide unilaterally to change their policies, it would still be a crime to unlock your phone," said Derek Khanna, one of the leading petitioners pushing for wider unlocking rights.

And that's part of the second challenge. Many third-party companies for whom unlocking is a big business would be put at risk if the Library of Congress denied the exception again in the future. In that light, even Wheeler's proposal doesn't go far enough, according to unlocking advocates.

The impact isn't theoretical. Phones need to be able to change hands easily if the used-device business is to thrive. Who would want an old phone, you say? People who can't afford to pay full freight for a new one, for instance. Or people who are interested in using electronics more sustainably. It's a growing business worldwide, but the inability to unlock secondhand phones has put a damper on the resale value of many devices.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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