The Unlock Lockdown

Typically, the word unlock has positive connotations.  You unlock your car, your house and your briefcase.  The idea is to keep your personal possessions yours; you paid for them after all. Likewise is the case with unlocking your cell phone, and, until recently, it was perfectly legal.

As of October 2012, the Librarian of Congress under the power granted by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act decreed, “Americans shall not unlock their own smartphone.”

After a three month grace period, the American people who have purchased smartphones after Jan. 26 are now subject to the law.

While the law itself may not seem too unrealistic, the penalty is.  First time offenders may be fined up to $500,000, imprisoned five years in jail or both.  Repeat offenders can see those penalties double.

For those not in the loop, unlocking a smartphone means that it can be transferred to different carriers, and this is actually a common practice.  Companies such as T-Mobile reward customers who unlock a phone from a previous carrier with discounted rates, AT&T will unlock your phone after your contract expires and Verizon sells its version of the iPhone 5 unlocked right out of the box.

Unlocking your smartphone is a way to gain freedom from your provider.  Whether you are unhappy with your service but love your phone or are traveling internationally and would like to avoid outrageous roaming costs by picking up a new SIM card, unlocking your phone offers freedom.

So if companies unlock phones, and it has been legal in the past, what is the issue?

One of the reasons cited was the 2010 ruling that held the purchaser of software does not own it, but rather licenses it.  The Librarian argued that the ruling weakened the case of considering unlocking fair use.  The final rational used by the Librarian was the influx of unlocked phones on the market; the Librarian reasoned that carrier permission for unlocking should be required in order to protect the carriers. Since unlocked phones can go for two to three times more on the market, the Librarian reasoned that companies are losing possible gains.

Why, then, is this new law so ridiculous?

To start, there is an unelected bureaucrat deciding what personal liberties we have and making them a felony.  Our personal rights are being infringed upon to protect intellectual property that has not been declared such by congress.

Derek Khanna, columnist for The Atlantic, said, “Some limitations may be sound, and Congress should debate them on the record.  Obviously, we do not have the right to copy books, movies and music and sell them.”

However, unlocking does not fall into the same category as book, movies and music and therefore shouldn’t be regulated under the same act.

While how the law will be enforced is still unclear, we must ask ourselves, “How much of our personal liberty are we willing to concede in order to protect intellectual property?”