Thursday, January 31, 2013

Unlocking Your Phone is Now Illegal (and that's just ridiculous)...

With almost no media attention, this week witnessed one of the great tragedies of the Digital Age.  Up until now, when you bought a cell phone designed for one service carrier's network, you had the ability to "unlock" the phone to use it on another's.  This isn't piracy or copyright infringement, as anyone who ever wanted to use their iPhone overseas, or wanted to switch from AT&T to Verizon after their contract was up, can attest.  It was just a matter of people who legally purchased a device wanting to open up the hood and make some adjustments.

Nevertheless, the Librarian of Congress decided to close a long-standing exemption in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and make unlocking one's phone illegal as of this past Saturday.  In response, there's now a White House petition circulating seeking to overturn the Librarian's decision.

Everyone should consider for themselves the pros and cons behind unlocked cell phones.  Much of the debate, as perceived by the Librarian of Congress in his ruling, focused on to what extent unlocked phones would affect consumers in the marketplace.  And that's a very legitimate debate to have.  However, what's additionally striking is that this has become yet another case of individuals being considered strictly as consumers, and failing to frame the issue in terms of property rights.

Property rights is the more appropriate venue.  When you buy a car, you're able to open up the hood and customize the engine.  Heck, you can completely change any aspect of the car.  And the reason is that you own it.  Now, imagine if you bought a Honda but the government came out proclaiming it was suddenly illegal to have anyone but Honda Corp. service it or change any components, and even that Honda Corp. had to right to approve or reject any changes before they could be made.  It would be absurd because the very concept of property rights, by definition, protects your ability to do what you want with your property, so long as it doesn't cause physical harm or damage to others.  The determination has nothing to do with how your changes might affect the extremely general notion of economic externalities in the broader marketplace.  You can bring your Honda to your local mechanic shop regardless of whether that will hurt Honda Corp.'s financial interests.

So guess what everybody?  You thought that when you paid $500 for that iPhone in your pocket that you actually bought it?  Think again.  According to the U.S. government, you are now legally locked-in to a device through, what is essentially, a perpetual lease.  You don't own it anymore than you own the PC in your office cubicle.  It's subject to someone else's rules in perpetuity, for the entire life of the device.

Whatever happened to a Culture of Ownership?



  

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