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Phone unlocking ban could hit you in the wallet

As of Saturday, your options for owning an unlocked phone become far more limited. You can ask your carrier to unlock it—and good luck with that—or you can pay a premium to manufacturers like Apple or Google for a new unlocked phone. You just can’t unlock your phone yourself—at least, not legally.

That decision was made not by voters, the courts, or even Congress. It was made by one man, 83-year-old Congressional Librarian James Hadley Billington, who is responsible for interpreting the meaning of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Billington decided last October that unlocking your phone yourself is a violation of the Act, which was originally written to prevent digital piracy.

In the United States cell phones are usually sold locked to one network.  Unlocking a phone involves entering a code, or running software to unlock it.  It can then be used on another network with the same technology.  In the U.S. this mostly just means using a T-Mobile phone on ATT or vice versa.  Before you travel overseas you can unlock a phone then use a local SIM card to avoid expensive international roaming.

Now because of a decision made by a single unelected bureaucrat, it is now illegal to unlock your phone without the permission of your phone company, the punishment a fine up to $500,000.  The purpose of the DMCA law is to prevent piracy.  I'm sure lobbiests for the phone companies made a compelling argument that confused this old man.

Why are the phone companies worried about people unlocking their phones now?
From the end of the article, it may be because all the carriers are moving to the same 4G technology:

Hays says that when LTE phones become more common, the issue of unlocking becomes even more important. Today, when you unlock an AT&T (GSM) phone, your only real option is to go to T-Mobile, which uses the same cellular technology. But when all carriers have converted over to the new LTE networks, the owner of an unlocked LTE phone has a choice of four major carriers and a number of regional ones.

Hays says the carriers may have worked hard to get an unlocking ban to protect themselves against widespread unlocking and massive “churn” in the (LTE) future.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Please sign the petition (20+ / 0-)

    Of the top petitions, this one has the most without meeting its goal, because of the raised threshold.

  •  not that I really sympathize (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    with the bunch of crooks that are the mobile phone industry service providers, but just for someone who is illiterate and uneducated on these issues, if I sign a contract, which is voluntary still even if it seems compulsary, to get service and pay for it from a provider,  why would I need to unlock my phone and use service from a provider I don't pay?   And wouldn't that be theft of services?

    •  Cause its your phone (8+ / 0-)

      even after your 2 year agreement  is up, it is illegal for you to do what you want with your phone.

      •  but my phone is a chunk of plastic (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        the service is what makes it useful to me.   Are you advocating we shouldn't have to pay monthly service?  Or that there should be a pooled service account and the companies track which service was used and the providers take their share?   Or exactly what is it that you want all of us to do?   Because I am still not sure that  what you are describing is not theft under current contracts.   If we want to change the laws and the contracts and the very nature of mobile service to something consumer friendly, great.   But I don't get the feeling that is what you are selling.

        •  NO (8+ / 0-)

          I'm saying you own the phone you should be able to do what you want with your own property.  This includes getting the most value out of selling it.  Or taking the phone you own to a cheaper or better service when you have completed your contract with your previous phone company.

        •  No theft of service involved. (7+ / 0-)

          Simply a decision to pay another provider for service.  It can happen after the original contract expires, or the user may elect to terminate their contract early by paying the penalty.

          Would it make sense for a home (landline) phone to only work with a specific telco but be useless if you moved to a different part of the country?

          That which doesn't kill me merely postpones the inevitable.

          by EeDan on Thu Jan 31, 2013 at 06:41:11 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  thank you (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            that explains it, you buy service from a new provider not the one you obtained the phone from.

            I appreciate the explanation.   I am not interested in the technology behind the phones, so I really didn't understand.   I thought it allowed one to roam service providers while only paying one of them.

        •  You sign a contract (5+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          qw3rty, theboz, Flying Goat, denise b, Creosote

          for two years.  Your phone might be fine for five or even ten (that's how long I kept my first one).  Why shouldn't you be free to change carriers after your contract expires?  That was the whole purpose of the hullaballoo about being able to keep your cell-phone NUMBER when you switched carriers.  Not being able to use your own phone is ridiculous.  Especially in a situation like travelling to Europe, where your carrier most likely doesn't even provide service, certainly doesn't provide it at any reasonable rate, and you can buy a local SIMM card at five different stands in any mall.

          •  Your Choice of Apps (0+ / 0-)

            Most people "root' or "jailbreak" their phones today because their carrier locked out some of the phone's features. Either out of greed, ignorance, rush to market, laziness, or a mistake. Until now you could legally fix that. Now you're stuck with whatever they did to "your" phone.

            And of course all of those problems tend to profit the telco. At your further expense.

            "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." - HST

            by DocGonzo on Fri Feb 01, 2013 at 05:24:51 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

        •  Your Data (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          footNmouth, Tinfoil Hat, jfromga, qw3rty

          Your phone numbers aren't the service. Your apps, emails, calendar, everything that isn't the service. They're yours.

          Except they're not. They're your phone company's now. You can't do what you want with them, even if the phone does. Apple or AT&T want to stop you from calling dial-a-prayer? Too bad for you. Stop calling people in your address book whose names match the "terrorist watch list"? Too bad for you.

          Want to switch carriers after your contract expires? Too bad. Your hunk of plastic is just a hunk of plastic - no service. Want to move your contacts off that phone to a new one on a new carrier? AT&T locks that out. Too bad for you. Want to move around without your GPS registering your every move to the same telco that wiretapped all your calls and read all your email the past decade? Too bad for you.

          The list goes on and on. This principle is why even the AT&T monopoly was forced you to let you own your phone in the 1980s, even before AT&T was "broken up" (it's reassembled itself since then).

          Just stop and think about it. If your car were like your phone, you couldn't use any mechanic, fill it with any gas, drive wherever or whenever you wanted. That would suck, and you'd know your freedom was crippled. Realize that your phone is even more personal and critical to your life.

          "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." - HST

          by DocGonzo on Fri Feb 01, 2013 at 05:22:16 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  thank you (0+ / 0-)

            that helped to explain further why locking the phone is a problem.  Even what is mine and had nothing to do with patents or any company,  is not really mine.

            Of course,  the real answer is to make this theft of private informatoin  and anti-competitive behavior illegal.  But since the big companies own the legislature one man or the US Congress, we're going to be screwed.

      •  Perhaps you should note (0+ / 0-)

        This applies to phones, but not tablets or data cards for PCs.

        Strange law.

        What about my Daughter's future?

        by koNko on Fri Feb 01, 2013 at 06:30:42 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  I was thinking about unlocking mine (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DarkLadyNyara, qw3rty, Creosote

      so that I could get rid of all the crap they put on it that I don't want.

      I decided against doing it because I was afraid I might mess it up. But I paid a lot of money for the phone and I don't see any good reason why I shouldn't be able to delete applications that I don't want on it. Stuff like Facebook.

      We decided to move the center farther to the right by starting the whole debate from a far-right position to begin with. - Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay

      by denise b on Fri Feb 01, 2013 at 12:47:59 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  thats a root or jailbreak (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        What your talking about is called "rooting" on android and "jailbreak" on iPhones.

        Its relatively simple, easier with some phones than others.  Its safe and reversible as long as you follow the directions. Lets you do things you couldn't otherwise like WiFi tether.
        I've rooted close to a dozen phones and haven't wrecked one yet.
        Find your device here

  •  Just buy an unlocked phone... (5+ / 0-)

    ...for crying out loud.  You're not "paying a premium", you're just paying the normal price, without the discount you would have gotten by signing a contract with a service provider.

    •  Congress (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      The other issue is that congress shouldnt give this much power to one man.

    •  Except for one thing (6+ / 0-)

      You're locked to that provider after you've completed your contract, which means you can't shop around.

      Service providers already charge a huge early termination fee (usually at least equal to the amount of time left in the contract) to ensure they recoup the loss of subsidizing the phone. That's how contracts work.

      Making it illegal to break a contract and take a device you own to a competitor is outrageous. Not to mention it stifles true marketplace competition.

      •  It would make sense (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        cynndara, andalusi, Creosote

        If there was also a law that said phone companies must unlock your phone after your contract is up and you're current on your payments.

        I don't even care that much about this issue that much, but I think if you understand it it just makes sense, its about whats fair to the consumer.

        I just want this petition to succeed so the white house has to respond.  I know they're not gonna do anything, I just want to see their response.

  •  Not this shit, again. (8+ / 0-)

    It is only illegal to unlock a phone that was subsidized by the carrier and then only until the contract runs out.

    link to the last diary on this topic. Note that not one commenter agreed with the diarist.

    •  Even after the 2 year contract is up (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Flying Goat

      It is illegal even after the contract is up.  But either way what if you want to sell it, and get a new phone early?  You are still obligated to your agreement with your phone company, or you pay a huge ETF for leaving your contract early.

      •  Why should you be allowed to sell a phone (0+ / 0-)

        that the carrier paid for?

        •  You pay for the phone (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          theboz, Flying Goat

          The phones are cheap because they are subsidized by higher monthly fees.  After 2 years you have probably paid for a $500 phone twice.  Just look at the difference in prices between prepaid and post paid plans.

          •  That is the business model. (4+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Hey338Too, coffeetalk, Rich in PA, theboz

            After the contract is up it is yours and you can unlock it. The carrier is supposed to do it if you ask but if they don't it's yours.

            •  Its up to the carrier (0+ / 0-)

              Even if they don't, its still illegal for you to do it.  

              Even if your contract isnt up it shouldnt matter. You can sell your phone before the contract is up, and get a new phone, or used on craigs list or ebay and use it for the rest of your contract.  Why cant you unlock it before you sell it?

              T-mobile is getting rid of contracts and selling phones full price and charging what the monthly fee is really worth.  Something I wish all phone companies would do.

            •  Ok, make sure I have this right (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              If I buy a phone, no deals from the carrier, full price for this here phone. Let's say I don't sign a contract. I buy the phone, I buy some service and voila I am good to go. After that service is completed at the end of the month can I unlock that phone that I bought and use it on another carrier?

              Putting on the spectacles of science in expectation of finding an answer to everything looked at signifies inner blindness. -- J(ames) Frank Dobie

              by cactusflinthead on Thu Jan 31, 2013 at 06:19:36 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  IF you paid full price it might come unlocked (0+ / 0-)

                If not you have to ask permission from your carrier to unlock it.  If it was made before Jan 26 2013 you can unlock it yourself no matter what.  If it was made after Jan 26 2013 it is illegal for you to unlock it without permission from the company, and is punishable by up to a $500,000 fine

            •  As mentioned in the diary, (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              this rule also doesn't let you unlock phones yourself after the contract is expired.

        •  Because You Keep Paying the Carrier (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Even if you unlock the phone and sell it to someone who pays another carrier for new service, if your contract isn't up you still have to pay your carrier. Unlocking the phone doesn't change that obligation.

          And if you sell it to someone because it's unlocked, you've got money to pay your carrier; before you didn't. Which means you're more able to pay your carrier than before.

          This is what people do with objects we buy or even borrow all the time. We get the object paid off over time, we sell it to someone else, we use the money to pay off the vendor that sold it to us. It's the backbone of American commerce. The telcos depend on doing that themselves. Why shouldn't the consumer keep that ability too?

          "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." - HST

          by DocGonzo on Fri Feb 01, 2013 at 05:28:50 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  at least that diary was more informative (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Hey338Too, qw3rty

      about what unlocking the phone is.   Thanks for the link.

    •  sorry, didnt see the other diary (0+ / 0-)
    •  Untrue (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      You are not allowed to unlock your phone, period. Only the carrier is allowed to do so and they are under no requirement to allow it.

  •  Illegal to unlock a phone you're leasing. (0+ / 0-)

    Perfectly legal to unlock a phone once the subsidy runs out and you own it.  

    The tent got so big it now stands for nothing.

    by Beelzebud on Thu Jan 31, 2013 at 05:41:01 PM PST

  •  T-Mobile has given me unlock codes in the past. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    you just have to ask, and your acct must be in good standing.  That was a coupfle of years ago, however, so rules might be different now.

    •  They still do (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Flying Goat

      But only to current customers.  And it shouldn't be illegal to do it without asking your carrier.  If I bought a used t-mobile phone on ebay I should be able to unlock it.

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