It is now illegal to unlock your smartphone to use it with multiple carriers.
The punishment for this offense isn’t just a slap on the wrist, either — perpetrators could face a fine of up to $500,000, five years in prison or both.
It’s worth noting that this is not the result of a law passed by Congress, but rather a decree from the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington.
This law, or rather “decree,” is clearly a favor to cell phone companies who want to retain exclusivity of service. The Library of Congress was able to circumvent Congress and the people to pass this because it is in charge of regulating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.
The act prevents citizens from sidestepping copyright protections on songs or DVDs. In previous years, the Library of Congress, which is responsible for creating exemptions to the DCMA, chose to exclude cell phone unlocking. Now, however, it has changed its mind, likely because of pressure from carriers and a wireless industry trade group.
If cell phone unlocking is banned within a contract, then a violation would be a civil matter, not a criminal one with a ridiculous fine attached.
If cell phone carriers want to ban their customers from unlocking their phones, then that is their right — they are providing a service to customers, under a contract that customers agree to. But that is where it has to stop; the government should not be involved in the matter.
The “crime” of unlocking a cell phone is difficult to investigate and is unlikely to result in prosecution.
Still, there is precedent when it comes to the DMCA spitting in the face of logic and reason. Recently, a civil case landed Boston University graduate student Joel Tenenbaum with a $675,000 penalty for sharing 31 songs on Kazaa — that’s more than $21,000 per song.
Even if no one is ever handed a half a million dollar fine for unlocking a smartphone, or thrown in prison for five years, the fact that such excessive punishments are an option at all is extremely troubling.
— David Weissman is a journalism junior. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on twitter via @WildcatOpinions