The controversy over unblocking mobile phones and tablets has gotten some recent attention from the White House, when a consumer petition led to a strong jolt of public pressure on the Obama Administration and Library of Congress (which protects the software copyrights owned by the manufacturers of those devices).
Consumer complaints and actions they took
For some time now, consumers have not been happy with the way in which they have been tied to their mobile device service provider because of the “locked” nature of their cell phone or tablet. This led some 114,000 consumers to draft and sign a petition that has garnered significant attention from the White House. Recent statements have been released by both the White House (via its Senior Advisor for Internet, Innovation and Privacy R. David Edelman) and the Library of Congress.
For their part, consumers argue that once a phone is paid for and the service contract associated with that phone expires, a consumer should no longer be bound to a particular company, but rather use the open market to purchase a service plan to that best suits them. In Edelman’s statement, he noted that the administration agreed, saying “If you have paid for your mobile device, and aren’t bound by a service agreement or other obligation, you should be able to use it on another network,” reports the “Huffington Post.”
Response from industry
For its part, those selling the phones or tablets argue that those devices are protected by intellectual property rights assigned to the software within the phones. There was an exemption under federal copyright law (known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act), which permitted consumers to “unlock” their cell phones, but this expired January 26, 2013.
While these wireless service providers are unlikely to take individual consumers to court for unlocking their phones or tablets, it is within their legal right. More likely, notes the “Huffington Post,” is that wireless companies will concentrate “on suing organized phone traffickers who unlock thousands of phones and ship them overseas, where they can be used on foreign wireless networks and sold for substantial profits.”
Moreover, says Counsel to the CTIA, The Wireless Association, “Consumers who pay the full price for a phone can take that phone to the carrier (or carriers) of their choice. However, if a carrier subsidized the price of the phone in exchange for the consumer’s agreement to use the phone on that carrier’s network, the consumer can only transfer the phone to a new carrier once the terms of the contract (or the carrier’s unlocking policy) have been satisfied.” No problem, or is it?
Clearly, neither consumers nor the White House thinks letting the foxes guard the hen house (even if they own the software to its design) is a good policy. The Obama Administration indicated that there is likely to be new regulations or even legislation to sort the issue out.
Accordingly, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski noted that his agency will be looking into the issue. He also suggested that Congress might want to consider drafting legislation as well (that is, if the wireless lobbyists don’t get there first).