Locked In – Service Providers Win Big with the Library of Congress

February 3, 2013 in Technology, Top News

Locked Smart Phone

Pictured is a literally locked smart phone. Source: Getty Images.

If anyone had intentions of unlocking their cell or smart phones, that option ended for any device purchased after Jan. 26. The Library of Congress recently put forward a pivotal decision with regard to the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Namely, unlocking your mobile device is now considered illegal. As a result, anyone who buys a cell or smart phone is locked into an exclusive contract with their service provider.

The decision has stirred quite a lot of debate. Talk of jailbreaking and unlocking has been widespread. Unlocking allows the phone to use alternative service providers. Jailbreaking, on the other hand, simply allows a phone to run programs that are not typically allowed. Jailbreaking remains completely legal. According to contributor Alex Heath of the website cultofmac.com, there have been no major lawsuits related to jailbreaking. However, phone unlocking lawsuits have been and will continue to be quite common.

This pivotal interpretation is a victory for service providers across the country. The penalties for unlocking are severe. A civil case ruled in favor of a service provider could win the provider as much as $2,500. A case against one who has obtained “commercial advantage,” however, could win up to $500,000 for providers and earn the defendant up to five years in prison. Providers claim that this has protected the sizable investments they pour into discounting expensive mobile devices for the sake of attracting and retaining customers.

There is a growing backlash from this decision. Many have taken to the blogosphere to protest the mandate of the Library of Congress. The validity and wisdom of this decision has often been called into question. Many have pointed out the Library of Congress is not even a legislative body and has made a unilateral decision that potentially will affect millions. Many also are working to mobilize the country in protest. A petition seeking to overturn this action on the White House petition site “We the People” – now hosted at petitions.whitehouse.gov – has gained quite a lot of momentum. Already nearly 54,000 of the required 100,000 signatures have been obtained.

Opponents also have argued against the decision as unnecessarily limiting. They argue that unlocking actually does nothing to threaten revenue-generating contracts. As before, one still must officially terminate a contract with a provider, paying penalties and fees for doing so. Unlocking a phone does not do this. What this new policy does limit, however, is the ability to switch between networks – something that is particularly useful when traveling abroad. Many of those who frequently travel prefer to have two plans due to what they consider the excessive data fees that providers will charge when roaming outside of the country. Forcing customers to pay these exorbitant fees is what critics have claimed this is truly about.

Despite the critics and protesters, for now it seems that cell and smart phone service providers have won the battle. But the war seems far from over. Besides challenging the legitimacy of the Library’s decision, an increasingly complex variety of mobile technology issues and legal cases promise to challenge the merits of this decision for years to come.