Consumers Outraged over Congressional Ban on Unlocking Your Phone

by Matt Klassen on January 30, 2013

As of this past weekend, if you unlock your mobile device you could be committing a crime, as a Congressional decision to ban the popular practice went into effect on Saturday. The decision closed a loophole in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that previously gave users the right to legally unlock a device in order to use the handset on a different network, an exception that had remained in place for several years while Congress reviewed the situation.

However, this past October the Library of Congress decided to close the loophole, arguing that the growth of the mobile market has now given consumers choices regarding device, carrier, and contracts, ostensibly concluding that the reason for unlocking a mobile device is now redundant. The decision also includes a grandfather clause that upholds the legality of unlocking a device purchased before Jan. 26, 2013.

Many see this as an anti-consumer move, dictating how consumers are able to use their own purchased property. Further, many are concerned that by restricting device unlocking will increase fees, reduce consumer choice, less flexibility in switching carriers, and greater device waste. But at its heart this decision raises one serious question: what does it mean to own a mobile device?

As I’ve mentioned previously, there’s a powerful force in Washington and unfortunately its not the lawmakers of the nation, its the lobbyists. Its abundantly clear to me that by making such a controversial decision Congress is considering the interests not of the consumers, but of the very vocal, very rich mobile carriers.

The decision was made as a way of protecting the investment carriers make in each of their customers, particularly regarding the subsidies carriers pay for many popular handsets. The argument is that by subsidizing your phone, carriers should have some say in how you use that device and should, be extension, be able to prevent users from jumping ship.

But of course this argument makes little sense, given that jailbreaking one’s phone does nothing for the contract signed with the carrier, meaning that if you want to change carriers there’s already financial insurance in place to protect your previous carrier in the form of heavy cancellation fees. If you’re willing to pay those fees, shouldn’t you be able to use your device how you see fit?

Further, when one’s phone contract does come do and the decision is made to switch carriers users are now not able to retain their beloved mobile device, forced to toss it into the ever-growing pile of technological trash and purchase a brand new handset on the new carrier. Wasteful and expensive.

While unlocking devices may continue to be available to consumers from third-party vendors, don’t think that your new carrier will be waiting for you with open arms either, as analysts predict that additional penalties and other such costs may be added to your bill if you haven’t purchased your phone with your chosen carrier.

In the end there are many frustrated by this decision, arguing both that it fails to take consumer interests into account and that, having been made by unelected officials at the Library of Congress, the decision hasn’t been made fairly or democratically. That said, while some try to petition the White House to reverse this decision, it looks like the provisional answer to the question, what does it mean to own a mobile device?, is simply….nothing at all.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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