Okay, I just scanned through my Google Reader feed (adios, Reader, I’ll miss ya) and found yet another rant about unlocking phones and I just can’t keep silent. My guess is that this won’t be one of my better posts, so you might as well go and check out xkcd. It’s always a hoot.
In the US at least, when you buy a phone you can often get it at a greatly discounted price if you buy it “locked” to a particular carrier’s network. The debate is whether or not one can legally unlock a phone without the carrier’s permission.
Now, it has always been illegal to unlock a phone while it is “under contract”. This has nothing to do with copyright law and everything to do with contract law. These days most carriers will unlock your phone once it is out of the time span of your agreement. The 3GS I use while overseas was happily unlocked by AT&T since its contract was over.
However, there are people providing software to unlock your phone without the carrier’s permission. This is usually done to circumvent the contract so that one can get a great deal on a phone yet use it on another network. This doesn’t make much sense to do in order to switch to another network full time as you are still under contract to make payments to the original carrier, but it can save a bunch of money if you travel overseas a lot and want to use your same phone yet not get raped by high mobile data fees.
The carriers are trying to use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) – as flawed a piece of legislation as there ever was – to block this software.
Since the DMCA deals with copyright, the administration of the law falls on the Librarian of Congress. They can issue exemptions to the DMCA, and for the last three years unlocking phones has enjoyed this exemption. This year the exemption was not renewed, and so it is now possible for the carriers to pursue legal action against people and companies involved in unlocking phones.
NOTE: This has nothing, zero, nada, zilch to do with “rooting” a device or installing different software on it, which is still legal.
This has caused a bunch of moral outrage, including a petition to get the White House involved.
I think it’s crap.
You want to sign a petition? Sign one to get the DMCA thrown out. When a huge company like F5 Networks can issue a letter to Google that results in the removal of legitimate webpages, like several dealing with the OpenNMS project, and costs me time and effort to try and get it reversed – that should be illegal. Heck, phone unlocking isn’t even a copyright issue so I doubt a court test would hold up, but abuse of the DMCA with junk such as this should be illegal.
You want to sign a petition? Sign one to get carriers to remove the “no class action” clause from their contracts. Since they all do it, it’s collusion, and there is no place in the market one can turn to that allows consumers to have any real recourse when the carriers do something stupid. If the phone unlocking hubbub was about requiring carriers to unlock out of contract phones, I could get behind it, but as far as I know, they do that already.
But if you just want to get out of your legal obligations to save a few bucks, cry me a river. When the Librarian originally granted the exemption, consumers had few options in getting either unlocked phones or getting off-contract phones unlocked. This has changed and the decision to remove the exemption is a good one.
I am especially unhappy when I see people in the Free and Open software movement unlocking their phones early. Enough people already associate free software advocates with software pirates that we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Don’t like a contract? Don’t sign it.
But I truly wish we could remove the DMCA and replace it with something less insane. That’s a petition I’ll sign.
Hat tip: This great article on what’s really going on.