Help Explain Why Phone Unlocking Is Important To You And Why It Should Be Legal

from the share-your-stories dept

First I would like to thank readers of this site and others in the tech community for their support of our phone unlocking campaign. As you may know, that campaign culminated with 114,000 signatures on the White House petition website, an FCC and White House endorsement of unlocking and several bills introduced in Congress. Legislation is usually a slow process, but, here, Congress appears to be moving quickly on this issue — potentially even putting this legislation up through suspension meaning that it wouldn’t receive any debate or amendment but can be done much quicker.

On Thursday, Chairman Goodlatte’s legislation will be before the House Judiciary IP Subcommittee. Unfortunately, while the wireless industry and others who have been against unlocking will be represented, there will be no witnesses at the hearing who have been part of our campaign for unlocking (however, Consumers Advocacy may be an advocate for the consumer on this issue). This is very disappointing news.

I met with some of the Members and their staff on this unlocking issue – and I was asked to submit formal written testimony to the committee. This testimony will be available to all Members during the hearing to consider while they also hear from their witnesses. I have been writing up a thorough presentation on the facts and why unlocking is important for the mobile market, liberty and consumer choice. Now I’m asking for your help and perspective. If you have a story on how unlocking affected you, I’d like to hear it. If you have information that should be relevant to the testimony, I want to include it.

In particular, Chairman Goodlatte’s legislation would legalize unlocking, but only temporarily, allowing the Librarian of Congress to rule all over again. At the same time, it will keep this technology as illegal for businesses to develop or sell.

If you are an entrepreneur who would like to offer a service for consumers in this category I would love to hear your story. What is the actual impact of unlocking being illegal, and if it were legalized for consumers and businesses what new market models may flourish?

Does anyone have any information on the impact of this restriction upon the resale market? Has anyone been sued or prosecuted for this? I am particularly interested in stories from our service members who may have to unlock their phones abroad. Has anyone ever called their phone provider and asked to unlock after their contract expired and were told no? These are stories I want to include.

Please comment here, e-mail me at, tweet me at @derekkhanna, or comment at I’m looking forward to hearing your suggestions.

In the wake of my report on copyright reform, my last day on the Hill was January 6th. Since that time, I have dedicated the past five months to this campaign, which I believe is a critical post-SOPA battle. As I argued on Boing Boing, this is a test of our ability to move positive action for small, winnable battles. If we can win on this issue, we will be able to build on this coalition going forward. Here is another article on how to approach reforms to copyright law.

So again, I want to thank all of you, I hope to hear data and stories from you. And I want to give credit where credit is due. Many were involved in this campaign, including Public Knowledge and Sina Khanifar. Without Jennifer Grancik with Stanford Law there may never have been an unlocking exception to begin with. And without thorough coverage from Techdirt, this issue may never have risen to prominence.

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Comments on “Help Explain Why Phone Unlocking Is Important To You And Why It Should Be Legal”

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out_of_the_blue says:

Has anyone been sued or prosecuted for this?


This is an example of “stake your position, then look for evidence”. You’re publicly begging for anecdotal evidence or idle dreaming — even better, for horror stories.

Be sure to include the fact that this is important only to a small number of techno-weenies, while nearly everyone else doesn’t worry about it.

silverscarcat says:

Re: Has anyone been sued or prosecuted for this?

Be sure to include the fact that this is important only to a small number of people in the know, while nearly everyone else who doesn’t know doesn’t worry about it.

ootb, when this is explained to people, how buying an expensive 300-500 dollar phone can only be used by one provider and then you have to buy a new phone to change providers, people just look aghast by that because it doesn’t make sense.

See, blue, the problem with copyright laws is that most people just don’t understand what those laws contain, how they mess with the public perception of reality and why they need to be changed to fit reality. Everyone agrees that we should pay the artist, but when the details come out about stuff, people get angry and want copyright changed.

I would rather buy a phone, video game, book or movie from the people who made them, rather than the corporation who distributes them, because then I know my money is going to the people who made it.

Chosen Reject (profile) says:

Re: Has anyone been sued or prosecuted for this?

There are all sorts of things that affect only a small portion of the population, and most people just don’t care. That doesn’t make it right.

A law that bans all Welsh immigrants to the US from ever being granted a small business license would be “important only to a small number of [Welsh entrepeneur]-weenies, while nearly everyone else doesn’t worry about it”. That hypothetical law would still be wrong.

You’re also wrong that they are looking for evidence. The position is solid without anecdotes. What they are looking for is human stories that make it more understandable for congresspersons. That’s completely different. Taking the example above, I don’t need to know a single Welsh entrepeneur to know that a law barring them from starting businesses is wrong. But if I had an actual example of it harming someone that would make it easier to overturn that hypothetical law.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The IP cartels are hurting themselves by passing all these provisions that somewhat reduce copy’right’ without actually fixing it.

With 95+ year copy protection lengths and a one sided penalty structure it is very easy to convince the public that copy’right’ needs to be reduced. More and more people will start demanding this more aggressively over time. So, instead of fixing those issues directly what congress will do is continue to add things like more fair use provisions and making copy’right’ slightly less restrictive in other ways. But that won’t fix the actual problem and so people will continue to demand more and more fixes and the outrageous nature of 95+ year copy protection lengths will continue to make it very easy for people to argue the laws are broken and we need fewer restrictions. Congress will continue to try and appease the public by passing more fair use exceptions but 95+ year copy protection lengths are so ridiculous that the public will not be appeased. Once these fair use exceptions are in place they will be hard to remove because the public is watching and doesn’t want them removed (because they are in the public interest). As momentum builds up to reduce 95+ year copy protection lengths to something substantially shorter eventually politicians will have no choice but to reduce these lengths to something much shorter. The result is copy’right’ law is substantially trimmed down in other ways (ie: more fair use) due to previous legislation changes designed to appease the public without reducing IP lengths and a reduction in IP lengths.

Or, congress could simply keep IP laws otherwise as restrictive as they currently are (which is very) by simply fixing the most obvious problems first (ie: 95+ year copy protection lengths and a more balanced penalty structure that punishes those who infringe less and punishes those who falsely claim infringement more). Then arguing that copy’right’ is (otherwise) broken will be much more difficult being that the most ridiculous aspects of it have been reduced and this will draw public attention away from copy’right’ towards other things and so congress won’t face as much pressure from the public to ‘fix’ these laws and so they won’t have to keep passing more fair use clauses to try and appease the public and still fail.

So congress can do this the easy way or the hard way. They can either fix the most egregious aspects of copy’right’ now to draw public attention away from it (ie: fixing 95+ year copy protection lengths and fixing the penalty structure) so that they won’t have to continue to add more fair use provisions and other exceptions or they can drag this out and try to continue to incrementally add more fair use provisions to appease the public and end up fixing the most outrageous aspects of the law later anyways when more public attention demands it and then they will end up with shorter lengths and fewer restrictions. They have a choice.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Think of this from my perspective, as a member of the public.

I am outraged by 95+ year copy protection lengths, I am outraged by insanely high infringement penalties and I am outraged by the fact that those who make bogus takedown requests are not proportionately punished.

I will continue to demand copy’right’ reform until these issues are resolved. If congress wants to pretend they are addressing my concerns with copy’right’ by fixing other more minor issues such as adding more fair use provisions and reducing the restrictions in other ways I am fine with that too. I won’t complain about that. But I will still continue to demand that substantial IP length reductions and a more balanced penalty structure regardless. These demands will not stop until these aspects of IP law get fixed. The number of people making these demands will only increase and propaganda will not do anything to convince anyone that 95+ year copy protection lengths are somehow a good thing. All it will do is make copy’right’ generally look bad and make any pro-copy’right’ propaganda look even worse.

Now if congress stopped ignoring these very obvious problems that I demand fixed and they fixed them right now, for the most part, I will pay much less attention to copy’right’ laws. Then Congress will no longer need to ignore the most obvious problems with the law and go on pretending they are addressing my concerns by reducing restrictions in other ways. Because if they don’t address our biggest concerns right now the public will continue to demand these concerns be addressed until they are addressed regardless of whether or not Congress wants to try and ignore these issues and pretend they are addressing the problem by reducing restrictions elsewhere first.

apauld (profile) says:

I hate the fact that there needs to be reasons given...

…other than the fact that I purchased said phone.

Honestly, I don’t have any idea why someone would want or need to unlock a phone, or even what unlocking really means. But if I bought the phone, either by purchasing outright or by being locked into an expensive long term plan, then it is mine.

And what a waste of our tax dollars to have a committee hearing where only one side of an issue will be represented.

We may all have to get all SOPA’d up to fight this one.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I hate the fact that there needs to be reasons given...

You move to an area where the the original carrier does not provide a signal. You may be stuck with the original contract, but you should be able to switch carrier to be able to use the phone. That way you at least avoid the cost of a new phone.

Anonymous Coward says:

Does anyone in Washington among our representatives really have a clue how bad the economy is for those attempting to make a living? Honestly I see all this pumping for how great it’s doing but everything I see doesn’t say that.

It’s like these people figure you just got money to throw around on anything when most folks are trying to keep up with the cost of living and required stuff to live, like food, rent, and gas. There’s not much extra when all that is paid for.

The reason I believe these smart phones are so high is there is no competition. As mentioned earlier, in order to change companies, you gotta buy a new phone. That is insane.

I’ve owned one, count that, one cell phone. Not a smart phone, just a basic cell phone. That amounted to a charge of $30 a month, an added charge of $5 to get the clerk to take the money in person, and a lengthy time to get a new battery for it.

$30 may not sound like a huge amount but when you are choosing between communications and food, guess which one wins out? I no longer have that plan, it’s too expensive for me. We’re not talking smart phones and contracts either.

I now use magic jack which for the cost of $70 a year roughly, I can have a phone all the year. Yah, I know there is skype and google alternative but with the way the government wants to be able to nose into everything, those come out to be shills for dumping your info to the government at first mumble of we want, never mind a valid court order. It’s not that I’m doing things that are to be considered note worthy, it’s the idea that this is way out of proportion to the ideas our country is supposed to espouse and it makes our government look just like what it is when it goes to other countries like China spouting off about personal freedoms; a hypocrite.

The truth of the matter is we don’t have a free market despite all the hoop-a-la and lip service or we wouldn’t be having this issue being brought up.

bytes (profile) says:

Tell Congress...

Someone will mess with their Blackberry’s if they don’t unlock phones.

Honestly I don’t know how much each Congress person dishes out per month on their phones. I wish they would share this info I bet it would be an eye opener.

If I pay cash for my phone I should be able to take it to any carrier to set up phone service. Not every phone carrier or phone service is made equal. One has lousy phones, the next has lousy coverage, while another could have lousy support. Some have a combo. This needs to change if you claim good support then show it. If you have commercials blaring all over the TV channels that you cover my areas then you better cover them because those are the areas that matter to me the most. If your support is crap then you deserve to go out of business. Don’t lock down my phone because I encounter these problems a lot and as it is now I can’t change because I am either locked out of my phone or I am under a 2 year contract.

As it stands now I own my phone free and clear. But I have not changed carriers because they don’t like my phone, and I refuse to purchase a new one. So what did my carrier do? They went up on monthly fees. Consumers can’t win because a select few own the market. We don’t even have a fighting chance. Unlocking, levels the playing field maybe some consumers don’t understand this, but once it catches on many will ask why it wasn’t done earlier. (profile) says:

Here's why....

I’m part of 2 tiny businesses who create web based business applications (bonded indebtedness; tying property addresses & data/legal descriptions to Google Maps [hopefully Apple Maps also]; and all sorts of different information in the public health area). Many, many places (business, education, even some local governments) are moving from legacy client/server based systems (bulky, clumsy, and costly) to acquiring and using web based biz applications that they can either run on their smartphones, or tablets.

Why? Because most of the time, they are working in a ‘movement based’ environment. These users are all about flexibility, because that’s what their work requires.

But imagine you are running on Smartphones and Tablets, and all the sudden your designated provider decides to play with your data plan. If you want to change, you can’t just unlock your Smartphones and move to some other vendor who will work with you, it’s got to be “changeout all your hardware” as part of any move. Tends to end up being a costly situation.

If you are moving from legacy client/server based system to a different one, you usually don’t have to changeout all your hardware. But if you are using web based productivity apps through Smartphones, you would have to change all your hardware and move to a different Smartphone, or even from/to the same exact model of Smartphone, just from different carriers? Where’s the fairness in that?

In all honesty, the carriers are being stupid and shortsighted. Because the future growth in going to be in web based productivity applications, and as a result, they’re going to be leaving more and more money on the table (marketplace won’t grow as fast). So much for the carriers supporting ‘innovation’…..

The real question is going to be “who are the carriers who will be smart enough to support this ‘unlocking’ legislation, and end up seeing more future growth as a result”.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m from the UK, where it is perfectly legal to unlock your phone but even so here are a few reasons why it should be legal in the US.

Not being able to unlock your phone is akin to buying a car and not being allowed to fill it up at the petrol station of your choosing. It’s like not being allowed to paint your car another colour or install a new radio.

Not being able to unlock your phone is akin to buying a house and not being allowed to redecorate it or install new furnishings.

Not being able to unlock your phone is akin to buying an apple and not being allowed to cook it or use it as an ingredient.

John85851 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

To continue your thought: not being able to unlock your phone is akin to “buying” an e-book on a Kindle, meaning you’re not buying it- you’re renting it. Or to put it their way, you’re paying for a temporary license until such time that they decide to take it back.
And since you don’t own it, so you don’t have the right to change it.

If people get a deal with a carrier and only pay $200 for a smartphone (but are locked into a 2-year contract), do they own the phone or are they renting it? I would say they’re renting the phone while they’re in the 2-year contract since the carrier will charge a large termination fee (to cover the cost of the phone) if the person cancels.

Malor (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Well, I’d say they own the phone outright, period. But they also have an financial obligation they must fulfill. The carriers can already make their life super-difficult for not paying the $250 fee, or whatever it is. There is a huge, nasty industry in the US devoted to collecting debt.

I’d say that’s enough. Once they sign the paperwork, the phone belongs to them, and they can do any damn thing they want with it. They’re already on the hook if they break it, so they’ve got the responsibilities of ownership. They should also get the benefits.

And then if they try to cheat their phone provider, well, there are tons of legal remedies available.

OldGeezer (profile) says:

While I agree that this should be legal I don’t know what the big deal is. Cell phones are so cheap now and by the time your contract is up your phone is probably a couple generations out of date. Or else your battery is starting to get weak and a replacement is as much as a new phone.
Since I retired I have little need for a cell phone but I want one for emergencies. I canceled my AT&T that was costing me $43 dollars a month and bought a Tracfone for $19.95 with unlimited double minutes. I activated it with 130 minutes good for 5 months for another $20.

Alex (user link) says:

Say for instance you bought a PC, and it came preinstalled with tons of mallware, all designed to make you buy more products from the company who you bought your pc from.

Say was *illegal* to install Linux on your PC when it came preinstalled with HP’s (or some other vendors) version of windows. Say they don’t want you to be able to install any other OS than theirs.

So you’re stuck with their software, which crashes your computer, eats up bandwidth, and costs you extra money in both time frustration and data overage fees. Oh ya, that’s what sprint’s crap was doing to my phone before i rooted it.

Malor (profile) says:

My unlocking story: I spent $600 on a phone (a Galaxy Nexus, imported from Europe) that would work on any GSM carrier, and would allow me to run whatever I want. (in other words, it’s unlocked at two levels; it’s both compatible with all GSM frequencies in use, and also offers me full control over the user-visible software running on the phone.)

I thought this was a fairly ridiculous price, and a law requiring that phones be fully unlocked would have meant I could have spent far less.

Now, it’s gotten better since I bought my Galaxy Nexus, as you can now get equivalent unlocked phones for $400 direct from Google, but that’s still about $200 or $250 too much. Even cheapies should be easily portable. Note that I do NOT mean subsidized phones; those only look cheap. I mean the actual cheapies, the ones you can buy for $100 to $150, should be usable with any carrier using that technology.

Note that simply allowing unlocks is not enough, because at least with AT&T and T-Mobile, the phones they sell themselves will be deliberately crippled, so as not to work well on their competitors’ frequencies. I’m not sure this legislation can be modified to fix that problem, but if it’s in scope, it’s something Congress should be thinking about.

Vagabond (profile) says:

History of the PC

What would have happened to the “personal” computer, if computer manufacturers had been permitted to lock down the computer completely? Actually, that’s exactly what Apple and a number of other manufacturer’s attempted to do. At the end of the 90’s nearly all of them failed as businesses or adapted their business models (Apple did neither). The reason that companies with that business model failed is that they were trying to control too much, and in the end companies that succeeded (M$) learned to let other companies deal with certain areas (hardware) while they focused on what they knew (software).

The thing that I find funny about all of this is that ATT, Verizon, whatever carrier we’re talking about, is that all of them are focusing their efforts outside of their actual service which is providing communication access (historically telephones, but now with VOIP it’s all just internet access). I find all of this to be very similiar to if Comcast were to tell me what operating systems I could and could not use on my personal computer… Which is nonsense. The service provider should ONLY be able to dictate the protocols to use and the guidelines associated with the protocols/service provided, which should not include the operating system or applications on the device that is leveraging the service.

The tech business models that have failed in the past will fail in the future. I say let them eat cake. Let congress allow these companies to do this, I’m confident the internet will respond with new and more interesting alternatives than purchasing a device that you never really own (isn’t that called leasing?).

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