FED UP with your mobile phone service? Think you’ll change wireless providers at some point? If you bought your phone after January, it’s criminal for you to “unlock” it, so that it’ll work on a different network, without your current provider’s permission. Not just illegal — criminal.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed by Congress in 1998, prohibited consumers from circumventing technological restrictions on what they can do with the music, DVDs, software and, as it turned out, even the cellphones that they buy. The idea was to prevent illegal copying and dissemination of copyrighted works. But lawmakers recognized that Congress could not anticipate all of the potentially negative consequences of that broad rule. So they empowered the Library of Congress to grant specific and temporary exceptions to the law every three years.
In 2006 and 2010, the library decided that cellphone users should be allowed to unlock their own phones if their carriers wouldn’t. But following a recent pitch from the wireless industry, the library determined in its most recent review that consumers no longer need the exception. Carriers say they unlock users’ phones under many conditions, and customers can find phones that are unlocked from the start. The wireless industry, meanwhile, insists that preventing users from unlocking their phones is an important protection of its business model, under which wireless providers subsidize the purchase of phones when customers sign up for a lengthy service contract.
But why should the government guarantee the viability of that business model — especially at the threat of criminal penalty? And why should copyright law be misused to do it? The industry has other tools available, beginning with hefty penalties for breaking a contract, to make the costs and benefits of these arrangements explicit to consumers. If the business model is indeed viable, companies should flourish under those conditions, as they did during the years in which mobile customers had the Library of Congress’s permission to unlock their phones.
In response to an online petition, R. David Edelman, President Obama’s senior adviser for Internet, innovation and privacy, announced that the White House would support “narrow legislative fixes” to change the phone-unlocking policy permanently. “Neither criminal law nor technological locks,” he wrote, “should prevent consumers from switching carriers when they are no longer bound by a service agreement or other obligation.” What, though, about those who want to pay an early-termination fee to break their service agreements? Or those who want to use their phones on different networks while abroad without asking for permission? We can’t think of a good reason why they should be subject to the threat of criminal sanction for unlocking their devices. Neither, we trust, will Congress as it examines the issue.