Yesterday we covered a story that reminded us all, come this weekend, it will be illegal in the United States to unlock a cell phone without your carrier's permission – or without buying the device unlocked in the first place. What a terrible, awful, no good part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Why does this matter?
Look – the point of unlocking a cell phone is that you can use it on other carriers, provided that the correct radios are already in your phone. That's what allows people to use AT&T iPhones on T-Mobile, ultimately. There are a few bigger issues at hand here, though.
Here's the actual phrasing of the act, as noted by CNET:
…with respect to new wireless handsets, there are ample alternatives to circumvention. That is, the marketplace has evolved such that there is now a wide array of unlocked phone options available to consumers. While it is true that not every wireless device is available unlocked, and wireless carriers' unlocking polices are not free from all restrictions, the record clearly demonstrates that there is a wide range of alternatives from which consumers may choose in order to obtain an unlocked wireless phone
I get it, carriers have a right to keep you locked down to their services until you pay up the full cost of your phone over a two-year contract. AT&T, for example, is happy to unlock your device after you've satisfied those requirements. To the same point, though, you're on a contract. So you're already stuck paying for your phone, whether you unlock it or not. Worse, you need to pay an early termination fee (ETF) if you do indeed decide to step away. So the point is, you really do own the phone, one way or another.
That means you should be allowed to do whatever you want with it right? Toss it in the ocean. Kick it down the street. Make phone calls. Drop it in the toilet. But don't you dare unlock it, no – that's illegal. What kind of controlled society are we getting into? We should have every right to unlock a cell phone. I do it all the time, especially before I travel, and it usually costs right around $50. Why would I want to cough up $500 in international data/calling/text message fees with my carrier if I can simply walk into any other GSM friendly operator in Berlin and buy a SIM card for the week at a fraction of that price? The argument from a carrier's standpoint is that you're on a contract, you're still paying off the phone and, essentially, you should still use its services.
The good news is I have a feeling it's going to be terribly hard to enforce the law. Better yet, carriers such as Verizon are already selling unlocked devices (such as the iPhone 5). In the end, I don't think a police officer is going to come knocking down my door for buying an unlock code online, I just think we should be able to do whatever we please with our own property.