White House and FCC want to legalize phone unlocking, but they should stay out of it
Earlier this year, it became illegal to unlock your phone without your carrier’s consent. As expected, this angered many mobile phone users, and eventually resulted in a petition with 100,000 signatures on the White House petition site, We The People. A White House representative responded to the petition, and stated that the administration feels unlocking a phone should be legal. The FCC joined in and mirrored this sentiment. However, the White House and FCC should back right off.
It’s important to note that I am all for phones being able to be unlocked. Tangentially related to that, I’m also all for homebrew — assuming it isn’t used to pirate software – and I’m not a fan of region-locked game consoles. When the White House and FCC are going to prevent phone carriers from locking their own products, though, I’m not a fan, even though the desires of the FCC and White House are in line with my own.
In October of last year, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act was updated to make phone unlocking illegal, which seemed like an excessive measure. Logically it should be a carrier’s responsibility to govern over the state of its phones. Rather than paying the full price of the phone, it is common practice for a carrier to offer a significant discount if you sign up for a contract. Most carriers would unlock your phone if you purchased it at full price without a contract, and it was common practice for phones to become unlocked after a contract ran out.
However, the DMCA update prevented users from taking advantage of carrier subsidies when purchasing a phone. If, for example, a phone was an exclusive piece of hardware to a carrier (and thus, locked), but you preferred a different carrier, you could sign up for a contract, get the phone at a discount, then terminate your contract (through a few methods, such as paying a termination fee or not paying your bill). After the contract was over, you could unlock your exclusive phone and take it where you please, having obtained it with that initial significant discount. The DMCA update prevented customers from taking advantage of that system, but it had unfortunate side effects, such as crippling the third-party resale market and massively inflating the cost of international roaming.
The DMCA should not have made unlocking phones a federal crime to begin with. Just a few months after that happened, though, White House and FCC representatives stated that unlocking phones should be legal, and they would look into revising the DMCA update. The White House representative stated that the government feels phones should be able to be unlocked after a contract is up, plain and simple, with no mention of the carrier subsidy. The FCC stated that it is looking into preserving the “consumer’s ability to unlock their mobile phones.” While those sentiments could lead to results any phone customer can agree with, those two governing bodies should knock it off and stay out of it. Why? Because whether or not you agree with the carriers’ practice of not allowing phones to be unlocked, carriers weren’t doing anything illegal.
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