Wireless Carriers Back Worthless Cellphone Unlocking Bill

IT Management

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Should you be able to unlock your cellphone? Wireless carriers used to not think so, but now the industry's lobbying group seems to be fine with it as long as the bill is worthless.

The Hill reports that the wireless industry group CTIA has indicated that it will support a cellphone unlocking bill during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the matter. Now, the group isn't supporting broad unlocking rules, but rather the very limited, and kind of worthless H.R. 1123, or the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act.

If you're just joining us. H.R. 1123 is a House bill introduced by Rep. Bod Goodlatte. The bill would reverse the Librarian of Congress' decision earlier this year to put cellphone unlocking back on the list of practices that violate the DMCA. Previously, it was exempt under the copyright law thus allowing customers to unlock their devices.

At the time, the reasoning for putting it back on the list was because the Librarian thought that wireless carriers were doing a good enough job of letting customers unlock their phones. Leaving it up to the carriers, however, leads to some being able to unlock their devices and some can't. Even those that can have to sometimes jump through a lot of hurdles just to move a phone to a different carrier.

So, why do wireless carriers like Goodlatte's legislation when they make it as hard as possible for customers to move phones? They like it because it does absolutely nothing to change the status quo. As the CTIA puts it, the bill provides "a reasonable balance that protects consumers and carriers alike."

Unfortunately, Goodlatte's bill does nothing to protect consumers. It just alleviates their suffering under the DMCA for three years. It does nothing to fix the actual problem.

In a perfect world, Congress and wireless carriers would be listening to FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai. In an op-ed for The New York Times, he argues that cellphone unlocking should be removed from the DMCA altogether.

To restore a free market that benefits consumers, we should amend the 1998 act to allow consumers to take their mobile devices from one carrier to another without fear of criminal prosecution or civil fines. We should also make clear that those who help consumers unlock their phones and tablets won’t be prosecuted either. And we should reiterate that contracts remain valid and enforceable. These fixes should be permanent, so that consumers, developers and wireless carriers don’t have to worry about the law shifting on a whim.

The entire op-ed is well worth reading, but the above is the central argument. Let people do whatever the hell they want with their phone after the contract is up. Cellphone unlocking should not be a crime, and it shouldn't have even been a copyright issue in the first place. As Pai says - "No one seriously believes that unlocking a cellphone to switch carriers is equivalent to piracy."

Unfortunately, the carriers do, and they will fight to keep cellphone unlocking under the DMCA. Goodlatte's bill does just that while pretending to care about consumer choice. Here's hoping that the House heeds Pai's words instead of the carriers' during today's hearing.