You didn't buy that phone

26 January 2013 by Steve Blum
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An increasingly common criminal.

The latest move by Washington lobbyists to harnass the coercive force of government in pursuit of business models is bearing fruit today. Thanks to the Librarian of Congress, it’s now illegal to unlock a mobile phone you buy from a carrier. (H/T to the WCA’s David Witkowski for the heads up.)

The ruling came three months ago, and is only now taking effect. Previously, the Librarian of Congress, under authority granted by, well, congress under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, said unlocking was legal. Under pressure from CTIA, the mobile industry’s primary lobbying organization, that stance was reversed. You see, you don’t really own the software that’s on your phone or, indeed, the phone itself.

Proponents [of mobile phone unlocking] …failed to offer relevant agreements to support their view of software ownership. CTIA, by contrast, cited agreements from several major carriers in an effort to demonstrate that the software on the mobile handsets is licensed, rather than sold, to a phone’s owner.

Although there’s still a grey area for older phones, the ruling removes the safe harbor protection that consumers once had. Jailbreaking is still legal – the Librarian gave us that much – but you’re at risk of engaging with the criminal, um, justice system if you want to use your phone overseas without paying a bazillion dollars in roaming charges.

If you buy a mobile in the U.S. today or in the future, you have to put your faith in the “liberal, publicly available unlocking policies” offered by mobile carriers. If you do it yourself and your carrier detects it, they’re now free to do something about it. Like shut it down.

Or point federal prosecutors at you. Yep, the same guys who handled the Aaron Swartz case with such professionalism, restraint and respect for civil rights.