Verizon Begins Locking Down Its Phones Again, Purportedly To 'Stop Theft'
from the fool-me-once dept
If you’ve been around a while, you probably know that Verizon has an adversarial relationship with openness and competition. The company’s history is rife with attempts to stifle competing emerging technologies that challenged Verizon’s own business interests, from its early attempts to block GPS and tethering apps so users would have to subscribe to inferior and expensive Verizon services, to its attempts to block competing mobile payment services to force users (again) onto Verizon’s own, inferior products. And that’s before you get to Verizon’s attempts to kill net neutrality and keep the broadband industry uncompetitive.
In the earlier years, Verizon had a horrible tendency to lock down its devices to a crippling and comical degree. But with the rise of net neutrality, competition from carriers like T-Mobile, and open access conditions affixed to certain spectrum purchased by Verizon, the company slowly-but-surely loosened its iron grip on mobile devices. But let’s be clear: the company had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the new, more open future we all currently enjoy, where (by and large) you can install whatever apps you like on your device, and attach most mainstream devices (with some caveats) to Verizon’s network.
That’s why more than a few eyebrows were raised after Verizon gave CNET the early exclusive news (apparently in the hopes that they’d frame it generously, which they did) that the company will soon be locking down its smartphones as part of a purported effort to “combat theft.” Carriers have been justly criticized (and sued) for doing too little to prevent theft, in part because they profit on both sides of the equation — both when a customer comes crying to Verizon to buy a new phone, and when the user with the stolen phone heads to Verizon to re-activate it on a new line.
On its surface, Verizon’s plan doesn’t seem to have much of an initial impact on traditional users, who’ll still get to have their phone unlocked after an unspecified amount of time. The only initial problems that could arise involve users who buy a phone, then head overseas to insert a local SIM to get more reasonably-priced service. Those users may have to contact Verizon before that phone will work, something that may or may not be a pain in the ass in real-world practice.
But it’s more the precedent of the move that has people familiar with Verizon’s handiwork on this front a little nervous. Especially given Verizon’s recent successes in not only killing net neutrality, but gutting most state and federal oversight of ISPs entirely (something many haven’t keyed into yet). For one, locking down its devices technically violates the “Carterfone” open access rules affixed to the 700MHz spectrum used in Verizon’s network. Verizon was quick to insist to CNET that this shift back toward locking down devices does not violate the “spirit of the agreement”:
“The move marks a broad reversal of its policy to offer all of its phones unlocked — part of a deal with the Federal Communications Commission requiring it to unlock phones as part of its acquisition of the “C block” of 700 megahertz spectrum, which powers its 4G LTE network. One section of the deal specifically prohibits Verizon from configuring handsets to prevent them from working on other networks.
Avi Greengart, an analyst at Global Data, said the policy change appears to contradict the existing rules.
Verizon, however, argues it’s still following the intent of the rule.
“This change does not impact the spirit of that agreement as it is designed to deter theft by those who engage in identity theft or other fraud,” said a spokeswoman for Verizon. “It is not inconsistent with our obligations under the C Block.”
Oh, ok then. The problem is that Verizon doesn’t have very much (read: any) credibility on this front, something other news outlets were notably more blunt about:
“Verizon has peddled CNET the story that this is about preventing handset theft and fraud. No facts or figures are provided to back up that assertion.
The simple fact is this: Verizon believes it can get away with SIM-locking its handsets again. This creates confusion for consumers. “Can I take my Verizon phone to another network?” Goes from being answered with a simple “Yes” to “Well, probably, but first you need to contact customer service, ask for us to do this, give us your phone’s serial number, wait a week, and make sure this software update comes through.”
Again, Verizon’s pretty damn ambiguous about the hard specifics of this new plan, only stating the handset lock down will expand over time. Verizon (like many large telecom operators) has a long, proud history of hiding anti-competitive behavior behind faux-technical jargon and a breathless concern over the safety and security of the network. So locking down phones “for security reasons” is great cover for what could be ballooning efforts to make it harder for wireless consumers to switch to competitors. After all, who’s going to stop them, net neutrality opponent, former Verizon employee, and current FCC boss Ajit Pai?