You might not have realized this, but in 2012, US Copyright Office let an exception to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) expire that suddenly made it illegal to unlock a cellphone you owned, for the purposes of using it with a different carrier. Passed in 1998, the DMCA covers many areas of modern technology, but the exception essentially allowed consumers to unlock phones like the Apple iPhone themselves, as opposed to purchasing a (much more expensive) unlocked phone or asking/paying the carrier to unlock the phone for you after you’ve paid for the phone through a subsidized contract. Though the exception lapsed late last year, the Whitehouse and the FCC have both issued statements urging Congress to legalize unlocking.
What this means for you:
In the US, unlocking your smartphone doesn’t have quite the same value as it does in other parts of the world, primarily because the two largest carriers operate networks that use two different technologies that are not found in any one phone. For example, if you had an AT&T iPhone, you can’t unlock it and move to Verizon, because the actual hardware will only work on GSM networks (Verizon is a CDMA-based network) but you could use it on T-Mobile’s network. The carriers aren’t really interested in seeing the exception renewed, primarily because it narrow’s consumer choice and “locks” unknowning customer with technology that, while simple to crack, is technically illegal to actually do without the carrier’s permission.
The issue rarely surfaces for most consumers anyways, as the carriers offer “free” or heavily discounted phones (with a multi-year contract, of course!) to “new” customers, so most opt to get something shiny and new, versus unlocking their 2-year old phone. The issue here is really more centered around protection of consumer rights and the fact that if you own something, you should be able to do whatever you want with it as long as it isn’t impacting the well-being of others. Unfortunately, the Whitehouse and the FCC can’t do anything about the DMCA or renewing the exception because the Copyright Office is governed by Congress. And we all know how productive they’ve been lately.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
As of February 26, 2013, five of America’s largest internet service providers will be putting into effect a copyright policing and enforcement program aimed at curbing online piracy of copyrighted digital content. Officially known as the “Copyright Alert System” but dubbed “Six Strikes” by the media and watchdog groups, the program is the result of a collaborative effort between the entertainment industry and the five ISP’s (AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon) aimed at stemming illegal piracy made trivial and commonplace by peer-to-peer filesharing protocols like BitTorrent and popularized by infamous sites like The Pirate Bay. According to the Center for Copyright Management (formed specifically to manage this program), the aim of CAS is not punitive, but educative. ISP customers suspected of engaging in infringing behavior will be warned multiple times, may have their bandwidth limited or accounts temporarily disabled until they attend what you might think of as the copyright law version of traffic school.
What this means for you:
The subject of copyright infringement is a touchy subject on the digital frontier. As you might have suspected, there is a lot of money at stake, and the entertainment industry has enough lawyers to invade a small country. They also have plenty of powerful friends in Washington, DC who aren’t above floating ruinous legislation to protect Hollywood’s royalties at the expense of hard-won digital freedoms and privacy. Rather than seeing everything setback decades by politicians and lawyers, the ISPs have struck a deal with Hollywood to police themselves to keep the government out of their business. Digital rights activists have raised a stink about the “Six Strikes” program, primarily because several of the big 5 haven’t really formalized the rules that will be used to govern how infractions will be handled. On top of this, there is a $35 charge to appeal any supposed infraction, driving the “innocent until proven guilty” crowd into a frenzy. It’s still way too early to tell if or how this program will work, but it’s moving forward, whether the internet likes it or not.