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Don't unlock your phone!
January 28, 2013 7:59 AM   Subscribe

It is now illegal in the US to unlock your smartphone. You face up to five years imprisonment and a $500,000 fine.

No, a new law wasn't passed. The Library of Congress just decided that the DMCA applies to this situation.
posted by Chocolate Pickle (161 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's always been illegal since the DMCA was passed, there was just a temporary exception that wasn't renewed.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:00 AM on January 28, 2013 [9 favorites]


Corporations: 1, People: NAN
posted by odinsdream at 8:00 AM on January 28, 2013 [40 favorites]


And the home of the braaaaave
posted by fullerine at 8:05 AM on January 28, 2013 [22 favorites]


Mmmm...naan.
posted by goethean at 8:05 AM on January 28, 2013 [46 favorites]


I consider myself a law abiding citizen, but then I also ignore the laws that don't make sense, so I am sure the authorities wouldn't consider me to be so.

This law makes no sense. If I own it I am going to do whatever I like to it. If I can't I don't own it.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:06 AM on January 28, 2013 [21 favorites]


Let's be clear: this doesn't make it illegal for your carrier to unlock your phone — it only makes it illegal for you to unlock your own phone.
posted by danielparks at 8:07 AM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


This law makes no sense. If I own it I am going to do whatever I like to it. If I can't I don't own it.

I'm pretty sure this law makes perfect sense. You have just misidentified the entity it is working for.

The real bad news is that there are no phones that are actually Free from top to bottom.
posted by DU at 8:09 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


From what I've heard this only applies under two conditions:
1. You purchased your phone after the 27th.
2. You are currently under contract.

If neither one of those is true, you're still free to do what you want. (This is not legal advice, I am not a lawyer).

It's still crappy, but not as crappy as it could be. We should still work to fix it.
posted by borkencode at 8:09 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


On the one hand, yeah, the punishment is completely fucking insane...

On the other hand, if you want an unlocked phone, don't buy a locked phone. I already consider locked technology as a kind of evil black vortex leading to a corporation. An iPad is just a gateway into Apple's walled garden. It's a nice garden to play in most of the time. An XBox is a gateway to Microsoft world, which is full of people who cuss and interminable software updates.

You can buy an unlocked iPhone for, like, 700$. Because that's what the phone actually costs according to Apple. This means that every customer is worth about 500$ to the telco that consumes them.
posted by sixohsix at 8:10 AM on January 28, 2013 [10 favorites]


ADVISORY BY DECREE OF THE LIBRARIAN OF CONGRESS

See. It's over. Even the Librarian of Congress is making laws.

The big, bad government is coming to get your guns and your unlocked smart phones.
posted by three blind mice at 8:10 AM on January 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


PENALTY: In some situations, first time offenders may be fined up to $500,000, imprisoned for five years, or both. For repeat offenders, the maximum penalty increases to a fine of $1,000,000, imprisonment for up to ten years, or both.*

A lot of people talk about how partisan bickering is destroying our faith in government. Me, my faith is destroyed when the parties come together to pass plainly absurd laws with insane punishments.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:11 AM on January 28, 2013 [57 favorites]


If I own it I am going to do whatever I like to it. If I can't I don't own it.

Well, that doesn't follow at all. Vehicles, tobacco, alcohol, firearms...you can own all of these highly regulated things.
posted by goethean at 8:11 AM on January 28, 2013 [12 favorites]


Congress is dysfunctional! Incapable of action due to deep ideological divide! Filibuster! No super majority -- Sorry!

Oh wait...
posted by Trochanter at 8:11 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


You wanna unlock your phone? Sure, you could do that, but then the phonemakers guild will be all up in ya grill. Last guy who unlocked his own phone didn't talk for week. Wasn't fer Angry Birds he woulda had nothing he needed the fucking thing fer, what with a broken jaw and all. Sure, it only takes 5 seconds to jailbreak one of these things, but you needs ta pay the perfessional. These guys, theys has dues, theys needs to eat, theys has kids. Why you hate der kids? What are ya, smart?

Go it alone, or get one of them back-alley unlockers to do it fer ya. Sees if I cares. We need people in our prisons too.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:11 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm just enjoying the flavor added to this policy by the fact that it's the Librarian of Congress who has the authority under the DMCA to prescribe it. Reminds me of the concept behind that anime Library Wars where librarians are the major powerbrokers in the world and they have standing armies.
posted by Pfardentrott at 8:12 AM on January 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


I read that as DTMFA, which also makes sense in a way.
posted by infini at 8:13 AM on January 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well, that doesn't follow at all. Vehicles, tobacco, alcohol, firearms...you can own all of these highly regulated things.

And once I have them in my possession I can do what I like. Sure, I can shoot someone, but that's not the argument. I can do what I like with it. I can take the gun and car apart. I can resell them.

I'm not arguing for the right to be able to bludgeon someone to death with my phone.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:14 AM on January 28, 2013 [14 favorites]


When people finally get fed up entirely, even the librarians won't be safe. Terrifying creation we've nurtured here.
posted by IvoShandor at 8:15 AM on January 28, 2013


The Librarian of Congress has had it in for me ever since she caught me looking at Tits of Congress on the 2003-Vintage Dell of Congress
posted by theodolite at 8:15 AM on January 28, 2013 [9 favorites]


Yet another situation in which crime is totally rad!
posted by Greg Nog at 8:16 AM on January 28, 2013 [8 favorites]


First the Librarian of Congress came for my iPhone and I said nothing.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:17 AM on January 28, 2013 [8 favorites]


Was it the actual Librarian of Congress - James H. Billington, 83-year-old Reagan appointee and Russian scholar - who made this sweeping decision on economic and technological policy? Or is "Librarian of Congress" in this case a polite metonymy for a smoke-filled room full of bureaucrats and lobbyists?
posted by Iridic at 8:18 AM on January 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm not arguing for the right to be able to bludgeon someone to death with my phone.

If you did it in the heat of passion, you might get less jail time than if you had unlocked your phone.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:20 AM on January 28, 2013 [66 favorites]


Vehicles, tobacco, alcohol, firearms...you can own all of these highly regulated things.

Well, at least 3 of them are highly regulated.

I'm not sure this law is as bad as people are making it out to be. Some of the phones are quite highly subsidized by the carriers and they should have some assurance that they can recoup that investment. As was noted above, if you don't like it you can always pay full price for an unlocked phone, and the carriers can still give you permission to unlock your phone (although I have a feeling they are now less inclined to do so.)
posted by TedW at 8:20 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


"The real bad news is that there are no phones that are actually Free from top to bottom."

Mozilla will hopefully have something to say about this.
posted by oddman at 8:22 AM on January 28, 2013 [8 favorites]


Some of the phones are quite highly subsidized by the carriers and they should have some assurance that they can recoup that investment.

Yeah, but as far as the punishment fitting the crime, I'm not sure why screwing AT&T out of three hundred bucks should land you $500K in the hole.
posted by griphus at 8:23 AM on January 28, 2013 [28 favorites]


You can buy an unlocked iPhone for, like, 700$. Because that's what the phone actually costs according to Apple. This means that every customer is worth about 500$ to the telco that consumes them.

Yes, that's what they say. But the iPhone is almost exactly the same as an iPod touch, which is sold at (approx) 50% profit margin. Actual cost on an iPhone to manufacture is less than $200.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:25 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


The word "unlock" is so overloaded in phones, it has to be pointed out that this is about Carrier Unlocking, and nothing about bootloader unlocking/rooting/jailbreaking. I think that people who assume it's the latter are the ones making a bigger deal about it.

For most people, this means absolutely nothing.
You buy a subsidized phone, you're under contract to use that phone with that provider for 2 years. Big deal.
posted by jozxyqk at 8:26 AM on January 28, 2013 [12 favorites]


If you did it in the heat of passion, you might get less jail time than if you had unlocked your phone.

Comparing likely sentences to maximum sentences is sort of silly. I highly doubt any first time offenders will get five years for simply unlocking their own phones (someone doing it for pay, might). It's like how, theoretically, there are places you can get 10 years in jail for slapping someone, but it's not going to happen.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:26 AM on January 28, 2013


It's more precise to say that you can't unlock a phone that was purchased on January 26 or later. If you bought the phone earlier than that, you can unlock it just fine, even if you don't actually do it until next year sometime.

The phones you buy directly from Google aren't locked, and aren't that expensive. They're not fully open, and I wish they were, but you can at least get root on them easily, and use them on either AT&T or T-Mobile, so it's not as bad as it could be. The baseband firmware is still locked, and there could certainly be backdoors in it for law enforcement (allowing remote surveillance, as an example), but their phones are the most open that you can actually buy.

Well, I should say, the most open you can TRY to buy, because they have ongoing supply problems. If you get tired of waiting, the prior-gen Galaxy Nexus is also very nice. I have one, and I'm very fond of it. I haven't even bothered rooting it yet, because I haven't needed to, but I think I may install CyanogenMod soon, as the Google apps don't work very well unless I submit to their extremely intrusive tracking/surveillance, which I'm not willing to do. Fortunately, they've given me an easy way to opt out completely.

There is some ongoing work on trying to get phones with a truly Free software stack, all the way down to the hardware, but it's rather more difficult than it should be. The companies making the baseband hardware are not at all cooperative with the open source community, because their actual customers, the handset manufacturers and carriers, won't allow it. They demand a forcibly captive audience.

As I just said in another thread, there's almost nothing a capitalist hates more than the free market, and they'll typically do anything they can to prevent one.
posted by Malor at 8:26 AM on January 28, 2013 [10 favorites]


You can buy an unlocked iPhone for, like, 700$.

Or a Nexus 4 for less than half that.
posted by dobbs at 8:27 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, but as far as the punishment fitting the crime, I'm not sure why screwing AT&T out of three hundred bucks should land you $500K in the hole.

Like most other things with large fines, because the damages are purposefully punitive. If the penalty for screwing AT&T out of three hundred bucks was a thousand bucks you think a dodgy electronics shop would have any qualms about unlocking hundreds of phones at a time?
posted by Talez at 8:27 AM on January 28, 2013


Iridic: "Or is "Librarian of Congress" in this case a polite metonymy for a smoke-filled room full of bureaucrats and lobbyists?"

It's an umbrella term for the umbrella organization that houses the Copyright Office, and is charged with implementing and upholding the copyright laws passed by congress (in this case, the DMCA).

A lot of very smart and well-meaning people work there. All of my friends on the LoC staff were furious about SOPA/PIPA, and the fact they were going to be the ones responsible for enforcing it. DMCA doesn't have many fans there either. I suspect that many of them are wondering today why the hell they've suddenly become responsible for regulating smartphone firmware.

Don't yell at the librarians. Yell at their bosses that you (yes, you!) hired.
posted by schmod at 8:28 AM on January 28, 2013 [19 favorites]


That does it! I'm making my OWN iPhone!
posted by mazola at 8:28 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


I consider myself a law abiding citizen, but then I also ignore the laws that don't make sense

I am sure this is true of everyone.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:28 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also: it is not illegal to swipe your finger across the screen to get to your iphone home screen (also "unlocking" your phone).
posted by jozxyqk at 8:28 AM on January 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yeah, but as far as the punishment fitting the crime, I'm not sure why screwing AT&T out of three hundred bucks should land you $500K in the hole.

And a prison sentence. Am I the only one that thinks prison should be reserved for physically dangerous people? Christ.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:28 AM on January 28, 2013 [25 favorites]


That does it! I'm making my OWN iPhone!

With blackjack and hookers?
posted by Talez at 8:29 AM on January 28, 2013 [8 favorites]


dobbs, note the We are out of inventory. Please check back soon message. The Nexus 7 is apparently very nice hardware, but it's in very short supply.

The last-gen Galaxy Nexus is almost as nice, and you can often still find those.
posted by Malor at 8:29 AM on January 28, 2013


... OWN iPhone!

Shhh, mazola, don't give Oprah any ideas.
posted by phong3d at 8:29 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I consider myself a law abiding citizen, but then I also ignore the laws that don't make sense
I am sure this is true of everyone.

This law seems to be targeting outfits that will unlock your cellphone for you ("up to $1,000,000 for repeat offenses"), i.e., people who knowingly break the law for profit.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:30 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Talez: "That does it! I'm making my OWN iPhone!

With blackjack and hookers?
"

Forget the blackjack.

This law seems to be targeting outfits that will unlock your cellphone for you ("up to $1,000,000 for repeat offenses"), i.e., people who knowingly break the law for profit.

That people break the law on purpose does not make it any less intensely stupid.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:32 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


For most people, this means absolutely nothing.
You buy a subsidized phone, you're under contract to use that phone with that provider for 2 years. Big deal.


Except for anyone who wants to travel overseas during the period of their contract. A locked phone can mean big bills when you get back. An unlocked phone means you can take advantage of the low cost sims that are available in overseas markets.
posted by longdaysjourney at 8:32 AM on January 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


oddman: "Mozilla will hopefully have something to say about this."

Honest question: Would the FCC approve a phone that allowed the user to muck about with the radio's baseband code? Would the carriers be allowed to explicitly block such a device from their networks?

There's quite a lot of bureaucracy responsible for keeping our airwaves clean and well-behaved. I'm not entirely convinced that it's a good idea to let amateurs run cell phones with their own Software Defined Radios.
posted by schmod at 8:32 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


This law seems to be targeting outfits that will unlock your cellphone for you

And, of course, websites that tell you how to do it yourself, even if they do so without a profit motive.
posted by Malor at 8:33 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is some ongoing work on trying to get phones with a truly Free software stack, all the way down to the hardware, but it's rather more difficult than it should be. The companies making the baseband hardware are not at all cooperative with the open source community, because their actual customers, the handset manufacturers and carriers, won't allow it. They demand a forcibly captive audience.

To be fair the laws of physics make it extremely easy for a moron to disrupt a major part of the cellphone network if given free reign to access the cell radio directly.
posted by Talez at 8:33 AM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


That people break the law on purpose does not make it any less intensely stupid.

Oh, agreed. A fine of a few hundred bucks to let the carrier recoup its subsidy would make sense... $500,000 and prison is completely insane.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:34 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think it is important to note the 500,000 dollar fine and prison term is for resellers, not individuals. I think I read somewhere for individuals it would be a civil punishment like a $2500 fine.
posted by tittergrrl at 8:35 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Jeebus.

The Atlantic has been in decline for a while ... but that's not even good quality linkbait.

Scary headline. Verbose 1st Person opinionating. Shoddy explication of the issues involved. Long commentary on side issues ("Conservatives should be leading the discussion on fixing this problem"). Piss poor web readability.

Click here, ghosts of RW Emerson and HW Longfellow. This is your legacy.
posted by notyou at 8:35 AM on January 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


Oh, agreed. A fine of a few hundred bucks to let the carrier recoup its subsidy would make sense... $500,000 and prison is completely insane.

Which is fine if you're Joe Sixpack there to unlock his phone when he goes overseas. If you're some dodgy little shop charging $50 cash a pop to unlock hundreds or thousands of phones...
posted by Talez at 8:36 AM on January 28, 2013


A fine of a few hundred bucks to let the carrier recoup its subsidy

That would be the early termination fee that exists in every cellphone contract since this whole racket began, and would apply on top of whatever fine is assessed under the DMCA.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:36 AM on January 28, 2013 [15 favorites]


This post is framed for maximum agitation. I'm willing to bet that if you need to use your GSM phone overseas then your carrier will permit you to unlock the phone. Let's wait and see more details on the carriers' specific policies before going aggro.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:38 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Which is fine if you're Joe Sixpack there to unlock his phone when he goes overseas. If you're some dodgy little shop charging $50 cash a pop to unlock hundreds or thousands of phones...

So? Why the fuck should this be a crime? There's already a contract, which already has early-termination penalties.

Why does the law need to be involved here? Even if the shop makes millions unlocking phones, the carriers aren't out anything. They have a contract.

This is a civil matter, not a criminal one.
posted by Malor at 8:39 AM on January 28, 2013 [26 favorites]


So? Why the fuck should this be a crime? There's already a contract, which already has early-termination penalties.

Why does the law need to be involved here? Even if the shop makes millions unlocking phones, the carriers aren't out anything. They have a contract.

This is a civil matter, not a criminal one.


Jesus Christ I hate it when yanks talk about phones.

Prepaid phones are sold at a substantial discount because the carriers know they can recoup losses on the razor with the blades. This means a phone that retails for $199, gets given to the carrier for $120 is sold at 7-11 for $70 with some airtime. This is what the carriers want to stop from being rorted.

They don't give a shit if you unlock your iPhone or some shit to not use it on another network inside the US. They give a shit that other people are helping their users get around the razor and blade model for profit. They give a shit if you go down to 7-11, buy all the phones, unlock them and then reexport them to other countries with a substantial discount c/o Ma Bell.
posted by Talez at 8:54 AM on January 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


Some of the phones are quite highly subsidized by the carriers and they should have some assurance that they can recoup that investment.

That's what the early termination fee is for. It's not a crime to breach any other contract in the United States of America. You can walk away from a mortgage, costing the bank potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars, and all that will happen to you is you get kicked out of the house and have a bad credit rating. People declare bankruptcy all the time, reneging on billions of dollars, and no one goes to jail for it. Why should altering a flag on your phone so that you can use an overseas SIM card while you're overseas be a criminal offense?
posted by dirigibleman at 8:54 AM on January 28, 2013 [23 favorites]


Because stopping the peons from depriving a company of potential profit is apparently what the US Criminal Code exists for now.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:59 AM on January 28, 2013 [17 favorites]


They give a shit that other people are helping their users get around the razor and blade model for profit.

So, yet another "business model," then, that literally depends on government regulation for its continued existence.

See? The "free market" BS these guys push is just a smoke-screen to make consumers abrogate their rights and responsibilities to have a meaningful say in the way the regulations that make the markets are constructed.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:03 AM on January 28, 2013 [20 favorites]


I'm willing to bet that if you need to use your GSM phone overseas then your carrier will permit you to unlock the phone.

This is an entire industry that forces you to pay for incoming minutes and text messages. They're not going to let you unlock your phone to use it overseas with a competitor.

That's not even addressing that it's a crime to do this. Jesus. Imagine having to report a criminal offense on a job application for doing this.
posted by dirigibleman at 9:05 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


So, yet another "business model," then, that literally depends on government regulation for its continued existence.

They give away a cell phone for twenty measly fucking dollars under the assumption they'll recoup some of their investment on service in the long game and all you assholes can do is talk about how government regulation is evil for letting this travesty continue.

I'm so glad that all of you can afford to begrudgingly exist in the corporate world of cell phone carrier contracts and can bitch about laws and rules that that would make sure that $20 cell remains viable.
posted by Talez at 9:07 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Psst. I've got an unlocked iphone. Lightly used. One lady owner. Perfect nick. It's yours for a monkey, a pony and an ayrton. That's a deal in anyone's language.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:09 AM on January 28, 2013


They give away a cell phone for twenty measly fucking dollars under the assumption they'll recoup some of their investment on service in the long game and all you assholes can do is talk about how government regulation is evil for letting this travesty continue.

And then they push through a law that makes it illegal for that investment to fail, ever. Privatize the profits, socialize the risks. Free markets!
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:10 AM on January 28, 2013 [20 favorites]


According to our own Register of Copyrights, Maria "Blacklist the Internet" Pallante, prosecutors have little incentive to prosecute misdemeanors and prefer to file felony charges.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:11 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


So, yet another "business model," then, that literally depends on government regulation for its continued existence.

That's like saying the rental car business depends on government regulation for its continued existence because you can't just ride off into the sunset with a car you rented for a weekend. Sure you technically own the phone and not the car, so the transaction is structured differently but in both cases you get to use a resource only under certain conditions. All business models depend on goverment regulation.

Obviously the penalties are preposterous but if you don't let them prevent phone unlocking then either they'll stop subsidising phones or they'll charge you a substantial percentage of the subsidy if you cancel your contract early. I don't particularly care if they do that, either way - I bought my phone for cash precisely to avoid carrier tie-ins.

To be fair the laws of physics make it extremely easy for a moron to disrupt a major part of the cellphone network if given free reign to access the cell radio directly.

I think the issue is more that they won't even sell the baseband chips to open source developers, not that they won't let them poke around inside (which they don't really let Apple or Samsung do either).
posted by atrazine at 9:11 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


They give away a cell phone for twenty measly fucking dollars under the assumption they'll recoup some of their investment on service in the long game and all you assholes can do is talk about how government regulation is evil for letting this travesty continue.

Thanks for calling me an asshole, Talez. I appreciate that note of decency and civility.

But my point isn't about this particular business model or regulation. It's a broader point about the American "Free Market" mythos and how its lay-adherents are being misled by economic interests that know better.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:12 AM on January 28, 2013 [15 favorites]


This seems to be aimed squarely at the second-hand market. As the stockpile of 2-year-old smartphones sitting in people's kitchen drawers grows, networks see less and less chance of recouping money once those phones are eventually sold on Craigslist or Ebay to users who are new to the smartphone market. The only companies that can make money on second-hand purchases are Apple and Google (via appstore purchases). Consider the fact that the two-generation old iPhone 4 is Apple's "constantly constrained" product in the supply chain right now.

Barriers to unlocking for resale (and use on other networks) sucks for consumers and it sucks for the environment
posted by rh at 9:14 AM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


That's like saying the rental car business depends on government regulation for its continued existence because you can't just ride off into the sunset with a car you rented for a weekend.

Absolutely.

The entire basis of functional markets is government regulation: standard currency, contract enforcement and laws prohibiting theft of services, for example.

In America, there's this prevailing popular delusion (stoked by cynical self-interested economic actors and morons) that markets can exist in a government-free vacuum that desperately needs to be countered at every opportunity at the moment. That's precisely my point.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:14 AM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


Don't yell at the librarians. Yell at their bosses that you (yes, you!) hired.

For serious. I don't know a librarian who both understands this and thinks it was a good idea. The Librarian of Congress isn't technically a librarian; that position has always been more or less political though sometimes you get forward thinking library types in there. It's a bummer because now is a really important time for copyright stuff and for libraries to have library- and society-minded leadership concerning these issues. Instead what we have is a hack who is in bed with big business for no useful reason. Sad.
posted by jessamyn at 9:20 AM on January 28, 2013 [14 favorites]


This post is framed for maximum agitation. I'm willing to bet that if you need to use your GSM phone overseas then your carrier will permit you to unlock the phone. Let's wait and see more details on the carriers' specific policies before going aggro.

Well, Verizon won't let you. As I learned when I went to Europe last spring and tried to get my old Blackberry - not my current phone - which I never use anymore, unlocked so I could get a SIM card and not come back to a $7000 bill. I raised holy hell with Verizon and they told me unapologetically that while they could unlock my Blackberry, they wouldn't unlock my Blackberry. So I ended up paying about $10 to get the unlock code from some outside company so I could safely use my phone on a SIM card abroad and not come back to a shit ton of sneaky roaming charges and whatnot. So seriously, fuck these phone companies and their monopolies.
posted by young sister beacon at 9:24 AM on January 28, 2013 [13 favorites]


Some of the phones are quite highly subsidized by the carriers and they should have some assurance that they can recoup that investment

Their contracts assure they already do.

They give away a cell phone for twenty measly fucking dollars under the assumption they'll recoup some of their investment on service in the long game and all you assholes can do is talk about how government regulation is evil for letting this travesty continue.

The fuck? Every subsidized cell phone comes with a contract with early termination penalties. Unlocking your phone doesn't get you out of your contract, and thus has nothing whatsoever to do with this subsidy bullshit.

or they'll charge you a substantial percentage of the subsidy if you cancel your contract early.

They already do!
posted by kmz at 9:24 AM on January 28, 2013 [9 favorites]


Verizon is not GSM.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:25 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


This post is framed for maximum agitation. I'm willing to bet that if you need to use your GSM phone overseas then your carrier will permit you to unlock the phone. Let's wait and see more details on the carriers' specific policies before going aggro.

I’ve only bought unlocked phones for years because I don’t want to be in a contract, but in the past when I had a locked phone and needed it unlocked ATT was happy to do it for me. They just want you to at least be a good ways into your contract.

I’m no fan of the phone companies or big business in general, but the rage in this thread is wildly uninformed and mostly misplaced.

The phone company makes a deal with you. They say "we’ll give you this phone cheap, but you can’t use on a different network". You take the deal and then are mad because you can’t use it on a different network?

Buy the phone that isn’t locked to a network. Do you sign up for Direct TV and then expect to use their receiver for the Dish Network?
posted by bongo_x at 9:26 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's a racket. It's all a racket.
posted by windykites at 9:26 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


All this outrage is probably part of the reason that T-Mobile said they were going to stop subsidizing phones.
posted by bongo_x at 9:28 AM on January 28, 2013


...T-Mobile said they were going to stop subsidizing phones.

I wish all carriers would do this. Let me decide when it's time to upgrade. I hate these 2 year waits. My preferred method would be to skip every other phone and sell the old one, but I end up having to wait to be "upgrade eligible."
posted by cjorgensen at 9:32 AM on January 28, 2013


Of course I want a more reasonable monthly payout when this happens.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:32 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


What they seem to want to prevent with this is people switching providers after their contract ends - as people have pointed out, the terms of the contract include an early termination clause already, which deals with people getting a subsidised phone then switching.

So, arguably it helps the networks retain customers (because if you want to change, you need a new phone) - but I can't see how it's good for anyone else (consumers or industry).

I'm not in the US, maybe this means next time I visit it'll be easier to get a prepaid SIM to slot into my phone (buying unlocked phones might become more common).
posted by dickasso at 9:33 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Verizon is not GSM.

CDMA carriers usually have at least some dual radio phones designed to accommodate overseas travel.

They say "we’ll give you this phone cheap, but you can’t use on a different network".

No, they say "we'll give you this phone cheap, but you're obligated to pay us at least several hundred dollars over the next couple of years, and fuck you you still can't use a different network."
posted by kmz at 9:33 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm willing to bet that if you need to use your GSM phone overseas then your carrier will permit you to unlock the phone. Let's wait and see more details on the carriers' specific policies before going aggro.

So, my (Canadian, not US) carrier has just such a policy. They will unlock your phone for $75 (as of last year). Or, as their employees may or may not have pointed out, there exist third parties who will do it for around $20.
posted by eviemath at 9:33 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, phone cops! Johnny Fever was right!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:40 AM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


Buy the phone that isn’t locked to a network. Do you sign up for Direct TV and then expect to use their receiver for the Dish Network?

DirecTV receivers are owned by DirecTV. If I could hypothetically own a DirecTV receiver, and somehow figure out how to get it to work with Dish Network, and I cancel your DirecTV (paying the huge ETF), then sign up with Dish, should I go to jail for doing that? Should that result in a criminal record?

Should people who've gone into foreclosure go to prison or pay huge fines? If I break the lease on my apartment, should I go to jail, pay a fine, and have a misdemeanor or felony on my record for the rest of my life, in addition to losing the security deposit?
posted by dirigibleman at 9:46 AM on January 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


I already consider locked technology as a kind of evil black vortex leading to a corporation. An iPad is just a gateway into Apple's walled garden. It's a nice garden to play in most of the time.

Uhhh.

The 'unlocking' referred to here is the process of unlocking a cellular radio and changing the baseband frequencies it uses to communicate. That allows you to buy, say, an AT&T cell phone, then change its baseband frequency to operate on the T-Mobile network.

Jailbreaking, the process by which a user unlocks their iPhone, iPad, or other Apple device such that they can install arbitrary software on it, is still legal.
posted by verb at 9:49 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Not for lack of trying, though.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:51 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


verb: "The 'unlocking' referred to here is the process of unlocking a cellular radio and changing the baseband frequencies it uses to communicate. That allows you to buy, say, an AT&T cell phone, then change its baseband frequency to operate on the T-Mobile network.
"

Does this distinction make categorizing the action as a crime acceptable?
posted by boo_radley at 9:57 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


The 'unlocking' referred to here is the process of unlocking a cellular radio and changing the baseband frequencies it uses to communicate. That allows you to buy, say, an AT&T cell phone, then change its baseband frequency to operate on the T-Mobile network.

You're not changing the actual frequencies the phone supports. If the phone doesn't support the network frequencies you want to use to begin with, you can't do jack about that. (AT&T and T-Mobile already use the same spectrum for voice and 2G data, and most modern phones support both their 3G frequencies.)

What unlocking does is remove the restriction on which SIM cards it will allow to be used, usually based on the IMSI.
posted by kmz at 10:04 AM on January 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


fwiw T-Mobile let me unlock my phone when I travelled overseas.
posted by asra at 10:04 AM on January 28, 2013


You can buy an unlocked iPhone for, like, 700$.

Or a Nexus 4 for less than half that.


If they were ever in stock...

I don't understand what carrier unlocking has to do with copyright. What digital media are you going to pirate if you switch from Verizon to T-mobile or use your phone overseas? Also, if you switch carriers, you have to break your contract, and the early termination fee takes care of the depreciated value of your phone that was subsidized by the telco. Or you keep paying for your contract, and then, who cares?

The Atlantic article says this:

However, given copyright laws broad interpretation by the courts, it could be argued that merely unlocking your own smartphone takes a device of one value and converts it into a device of double that value (the resale market for unlocked phones is significantly higher) and therefore unlocking is inherently providing a commercial advantage or a private financial gain - even if the gain hasn't been realized. In other words, unlocking doubles or triples the resale value of your own device and replaces the need to procure the unlocked device from the carrier at steep costs, which may be by definition a private financial gain. Alternatively, one can argue that a customer buying a cheaper version of a product, the locked version vs. the unlocked version, and then unlocking it themselves in violation of the DMCA, is denying the provider of revenue which also qualifies.

But again, isn't the contract that you pay for supposed to pay for the full (unlocked) price of the phone? How are you denying the telco revenue? And, again, what does this have to do with digital media copyright? We are talking about a physical phone. If you fix up your car so it can run on biofuel/grease, are you denying Exxon revenue?
posted by bluefly at 10:06 AM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


Eh?

So no carrier unlocks even after the phone is off contract?

That pretty much undercuts all those "carriers have a right to recoup hardware costs via subscription" arguments, doesn't it?
posted by notyou at 10:07 AM on January 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


That allows you to buy, say, an AT&T cell phone

Well if you're going to get all pedantic, AT&T doesn't make cell phones.

dobbs, note the We are out of inventory. Please check back soon message. The Nexus 4 is apparently very nice hardware, but it's in very short supply.

LG and Google are on record as saying they hope to have this problem resolved in February. Regardless, my point is that Apple's price tag is absurd at more than twice the cost of a phone that will do as much if not more. Be patient and the N4 will come back into stock (I have one--it's worth the wait) or, if this law gets legs then I expect other manufacturers to offer unlocked phones at better prices. Apple probably won't but that's no surprise.
posted by dobbs at 10:07 AM on January 28, 2013


That Atlantic article, which fails to describe the issue with any kind of coherency, was a terrible way to bring this discussion to Metafiler.
posted by notyou at 10:09 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


infini: "I read that as DTMFA, which also makes sense in a way."

DTMFDMCAA???
posted by symbioid at 10:11 AM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


When I moved back to Canada, T-Mobile had no problem unlocking my phone (a pre-paid that I had used for 1.5 years). But Rogers (major Canadian company) refuses to unlock a 5+ year old Nokia 1110, even though the contract finished years ago.

Rogers sucks. Even Bell isn't as bad.
posted by jb at 10:18 AM on January 28, 2013


If I own it I am going to do whatever I like to it. If I can't I don't own it.

You assume you own it. You may own the hardware, but the software can be merely licensed to you, with all kinds of restrictions.
posted by caddis at 10:23 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


cjorgensen: Well, that doesn't follow at all. Vehicles, tobacco, alcohol, firearms...you can own all of these highly regulated things.

And once I have them in my possession I can do what I like. Sure, I can shoot someone, but that's not the argument. I can do what I like with it. I can take the gun and car apart. I can resell them.

I'm not arguing for the right to be able to bludgeon someone to death with my phone.
No, you can't, any more than you can use your 2nd-Amendment rights to personally overturn the gubmint with yer sawed-off fully-automatic shotgun.

You aren't allowed to smoke the tobacco you own in a courthouse. You aren't allowed to smoke it in a bar (in most jurisdictions). You aren't allowed to resell your alcohol at all, without proper licensing (and the same is generally true of the rest of the categories you listed).

Your precious ownership of regulated items is still subject to regulation.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:34 AM on January 28, 2013


You aren't allowed to smoke the tobacco you own in a courthouse. You aren't allowed to smoke it in a bar (in most jurisdictions). You aren't allowed to resell your alcohol at all, without proper licensing (and the same is generally true of the rest of the categories you listed).

Your precious ownership of regulated items is still subject to regulation.


Yeah, you always hear those sad stories of people driving with their unlocked phones and then they kill a family of four and they have to live with that the rest of their lives. Or people going on unlocked cell phone sprees. Or people getting lung cancer from excessive phone unlocking. It really is a menace to society.
posted by kmz at 10:38 AM on January 28, 2013 [16 favorites]


I consider myself a law abiding citizen, but then I also ignore the laws that don't make sense, so I am sure the authorities wouldn't consider me to be so.

But if you try to make a side business out of this, or write software that makes it easy to do, etc etc, the powers that be will come down on you so hard. And that's what this is all about. Noone cares if a few nerds unlock phones, they care if most people can do it, so they make it illegal and boom, problem solved (for the phone companies.)
posted by aspo at 10:40 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


The baseband firmware is still locked, and there could certainly be backdoors in it for law enforcement (allowing remote surveillance, as an example)

Oh please. This is one step away from warning people about the lizard people.
posted by aspo at 10:43 AM on January 28, 2013


Telecommunications companies have historically been pretty cozy with law enforcement; I don't think it's that implausible that they might have put remote listening backdoors into the software.
posted by Pyry at 10:49 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


kmz: Yeah, you always hear those sad stories of people driving with their unlocked phones and then they kill a family of four and they have to live with that the rest of their lives. Or people going on unlocked cell phone sprees. Or people getting lung cancer from excessive phone unlocking. It really is a menace to society.
Not my point. I hate this law. I hate the idea that software licenses can be restricted from resale, that I can't use my phone exactly as I wish (insofar as it doesn't interfere with anyone else's liberties and wellbeing, of course), and that copyright law is effectively one of the largest tools used to stifle creativity and innovation in the marketplace.

My point is: cjorgensen is spouting typical, Amurican, "They kin take it from me when they pry it from may cold, dead hands!!!"-type nonsense. Ownership is limited, in this and every other country I'm aware of. Your house may be taken with emminent demesne. Your use of controlled substances is controlled, even after you own them. And the government has the power to shit all over consumers in favor of the big-money corporate interests, regardless of "ownership".

This isn't about legal rights - the government is acting within their legal authority. It's about personal rights which are being ignored by poor government.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:50 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh please. This is one step away from warning people about the lizard people.

Does no one remember the Clipper Chip?
posted by kmz at 10:56 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Telecommunications companies have historically been pretty cozy with law enforcement; I don't think it's that implausible that they might have put remote listening backdoors into the software.

You might want to dial down the paranoia. Seriously. Because if this was happening 1. you'd know and 2. that cell company would get destroyed by lawsuits. There's some pretty strong laws in the US about wiretapping.

You want to be paranoid? The cell companies know pretty much where your phone is at all times. And unlike Google or Twitter (to name a few) they have relatively low standards for giving that information to law enforcement. If you are the kind of person who thinks the government is bugging you by listening in on your cellphone when you aren't using it then you probably shouldn't be using the internet, let alone a cellphone.

Oh and as to the clipper chip. That was a case of the government wanting to be able to wiretap/intercept communications (which they still can today, it's not some hidden backdoor in your firmware, it's something they do at the phone company side of things) and how have to worry about unbreakable user encryption. I'm not an apologist of government overreach, but worrying about trojaned phones being remote bugs is... well... crazypants.
posted by aspo at 10:59 AM on January 28, 2013


That Atlantic article, which fails to describe the issue with any kind of coherency, was a terrible way to bring this discussion to Metafiler.

Then I would love it if someone could write a few paragraphs explaining the issue. I'm not trying to be a jerk, I really would like to know the counter argument as I'm not exactly an expert on the subject. I just really fail to understand why my phone company refused to unlock my old phone, not the one on my contract, that I own and hadn't used forever. I'm not trying to get around the contract on my current phone, I'm trying to use a SIM card overseas in an otherwise discarded phone that I own outright.

As it is, it's hard for me to see this as anything other than greed by the phone companies who know their customers have little choice in the matter of cell phone providers. But if I'm wrong, I would like it if someone could tell me why.
posted by young sister beacon at 10:59 AM on January 28, 2013


You might want to dial down the paranoia. Seriously. Because if this was happening 1. you'd know and 2. that cell company would get destroyed by lawsuits. There's some pretty strong laws in the US about wiretapping.

Except the FBI was already doing this in 2006.
posted by Pyry at 11:08 AM on January 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


Oh please. This is one step away from warning people about the lizard people.

No, aspo, it isn't. It is already known that law enforcement uses cell phones as surveillance devices. Already known. Hard, established fact.
posted by Malor at 11:09 AM on January 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Like most other things with large fines, because the damages are purposefully punitive.

One more point in response to Talez... In the US, the Supreme Court has in recent years ruled that punitive damages should not be available in certain cases, and that in any civil case, should not exceed a 4:1 ratio between punitive and compensatory damages.

By that reasoning, a civil fine of $1200 or so might be justifiable for a violation if a cell phone provider could reasonably demonstrate lost revenue of $300 for an unlocked phone. But I don't see how dealing with this issue by levying a criminal penalty of 5 years in prison and a $500,000 fine in any way, shape or form constitutes a proportional penalty. Judged by the same metric as civil court remedies under current law, this penalty would amount to a 1,667:1 ratio between punitive and compensatory damages. What could possibly justify showing such blatant favoritism toward commercial interests over individuals seeking redress of grievances under the law? I realize there are important technical distinctions between civil and criminal law, but why is this a matter for criminal instead of civil law in the first place, and isn't the intent of both to provide fair and equal protection for all interested parties under the law?
In response to judges and juries which award high punitive damages verdicts, the Supreme Court of the United States has made several decisions which limit awards of punitive damages through the due process of law clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. In a number of cases, the Court has indicated that a 4:1 ratio between punitive and compensatory damages is high enough to lead to a finding of constitutional impropriety, and that any ratio of 10:1 or higher is almost certainly unconstitutional.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:10 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


aspo: further followup information, Roving Bug in Cell Phones Used By FBI to Eavesdrop on Syndicate.

I'd like an apology, please.
posted by Malor at 11:11 AM on January 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


Would the FCC approve a phone that allowed the user to muck about with the radio's baseband code?

Not, you know, intentionally, but it could happen.

The baseband firmware is still locked, and there could certainly be backdoors in it for law enforcement (allowing remote surveillance, as an example)

Oh please. This is one step away from warning people about the lizard people.


Yeah, really, enough with the "conspiracies", do you really expect some sort of magical government agency to do something like mandate that they be given backdoors for surveillance purposes? It's simply unheard of!

"Two decades ago, the FBI complained it was having trouble tapping the then-latest cellphones and digital telephone switches. After extensive FBI lobbying, Congress passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) in 1994, mandating that all telephone switches include FBI-approved wiretapping capabilities."

Now, as has been mentioned, this was an act passed in congress and it is on the carrier side of things. So we know that it's there and we know that it's not in the phones and we expect the law enforcement agencies to obey the laws when they are conducting surveillance. This does not, however, rule out that there have been agreements apart from this or that someone - perhaps not even a US government agency - has placed a backdoor on the chips for other purposes, possibly development reasons. For example, in this case of a backdoor in a particular FPGA chip.

"Backdoors are a common problem in software. About 20% of home routers have a backdoor in them, and 50% of industrial control computers have a backdoor. The cause of these backdoors isn't malicious, but a byproduct of software complexity. Systems need to be debugged before being shipped to customers. Therefore, the software contains debuggers."

I'm not going to argue that there is or isn't such a mechanism in your baseband hardware. What I would argue is that there is really no way to know for certain, that it probably will not affect any one of us, and that a belief there might be is in no way on the same level as a belief in lizard people.
posted by nTeleKy at 11:14 AM on January 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


that it probably will not affect any one of us

Considering that the FBI and local police agencies are already known to be infiltrating peaceful protest groups to spy on them, I think this is exuberantly optimistic. No argument with the rest of your comment, though.
posted by Malor at 11:17 AM on January 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


I spent about 10 hellish months doing customer support for AT&T wireless customers. Those people assuming that the company would have no problem unlocking have obviously never tried to unlock a phone with their carrier.

There is a whole process of hoops to jump through, and if you haven't had your phone long enough, NO. If you haven't met whatever requirements, NO. And sometimes, we would go through the whole process and everything is totally ok, the account definitely qualifies, they've had the phone long enough, and when we'd go in to get the code we'd see a message saying "This phone is not unlockable". The end.

"Due to exclusivity agreements" some models were not permitted to EVER have an unlock code provided by AT&T. So if you happened to have that model, even if you faithfully waited your 2 years until contract is up, you are faced with having a useless brick (if you change carriers or want to travel overseas), or a felony. Yay options!
posted by HermitDog at 11:17 AM on January 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, that lizard people comment was quite douchey.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:17 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Putting it into the baseband hardware would probably be overkill; a regular app on Android just needs the microphone and internet access permissions to act as a remote listening device, and the carriers can already force your phone to download an app and accept the permissions.
posted by Pyry at 11:18 AM on January 28, 2013


and the carriers can already force your phone to download an app and accept the permissions.

As far as I know, they can't do this if you're running CyanogenMod.
posted by Malor at 11:19 AM on January 28, 2013


I just really fail to understand why my phone company refused to unlock my old phone, not the one on my contract, that I own and hadn't used forever. I'm not trying to get around the contract on my current phone, I'm trying to use a SIM card overseas in an otherwise discarded phone that I own outright.

They were being jerks, and probably just laziness. I’ve had phone companies do this for me a couple of times. As mentioned here it varies according to who you’re talking to. If I remember correctly, a few years ago I tried to have a phone unlocked and they didn’t want to do it, so I went to another store and they did it no problem.

People here are still confusing the issue of carrier locking with software locking. If you get a subsidized phone you haven’t paid for that phone yet, it’s like equipment leasing. If they won’t unlock it when your contract is up then they’re being jerks.

But you bought a crippled phone to begin with to save money. Don’t do that.
posted by bongo_x at 11:21 AM on January 28, 2013


Details of how the Nextel bugs worked are sketchy. Court documents, including an affidavit (p1) and (p2) prepared by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Kolodner in September 2003, refer to them as a "listening device placed in the cellular telephone." That phrase could refer to software or hardware.

Can someone put software on your phone that's a remote listening app. Yes. Although in this case it's unclear if that was even the case. Is there a backdoor in your firmware that the government is using for that purpose and is locked of so you can't get to it. No. And I stand by that.

People are strangely paranoid about cellphones and then ignore the very obvious cases where the things are completely and utterly panopticonish.
posted by aspo at 11:22 AM on January 28, 2013


That wasn't an apology, aspo, and I feel you owe me one. More info:

Ninth Circuit OKs Feds Use of Cellphones as Roving Bugs
The Ninth Circuit of Appeals ruled on July 20 that agents of the federal government may use a cellphone as a microphone and record the conversations overheard even when the phone itself is not being used otherwise.
posted by Malor at 11:26 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Your use of controlled substances is controlled, even after you own them. And the government has the power to shit all over consumers in favor of the big-money corporate interests, regardless of "ownership".

This isn't about legal rights - the government is acting within their legal authority. It's about personal rights which are being ignored by poor government.


This regulatory capture is made more likely by the people who are so afraid of it. The liberty to give money to politicians is why politicians are so amenable to restricting other liberties more important to everyday people then the liberty to make unlimited campaign contributions.

It's very much like the self-fulfilling prophecy of republicans campaigning on government incompetence and then proving it when elected.
posted by srboisvert at 11:31 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


If you get a subsidized phone you haven’t paid for that phone yet, it’s like equipment leasing.

How many times do people have to bring up contracts and termination fees before you realize this is a bogus argument?
posted by kmz at 11:33 AM on January 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


The baseband firmware is still locked, and there could certainly be backdoors in it for law enforcement (allowing remote surveillance, as an example)

Oh please. This is one step away from warning people about the lizard people.


...

aspo: further followup information, Roving Bug in Cell Phones Used By FBI to Eavesdrop on Syndicate.


You don't even need a bug, Many Android devices included this built into the firmware:

From a permissions standpoint -- with respect to Android -- the software is capable of logging user keystrokes, recording telephone calls, storing text messages, tracking location and more. It is often difficult or impossible to disable.

Vulnerability to closed-source firmware is a known problem discussed by many highly respected security experts. It is a risk everywhere, but especially critical in systems devoted to maintaining a democracy.

The continual push for trusted computing platforms, where the very base layer of your computing system is not in your control is a very real threat to privacy everywhere. This debate has been going on for decades.

It's really a very simple issue, regardless of the technical details. These trusted computing projects aim to put a black-box in any computer system through which all input and output passes. The user will have no access to this black-box. The argument for implementation is usually for copyright or security purposes. But regardless, it leads to a system where all the input and output going through the system can't be trusted. You have no idea what was done to it. Imagine if you had to wear, by law, a pair of glasses through which your entire world was filtered. And you had to wear a voice box through which all your speech was modulated.

It sounds absurd. I'll admit, it sounds lizard-people like. But this isn't a conspiracy theory. This debate has been going on for decades in the computer industry.

But then again, imprisonment and a $500,000 fine for installing software on your phone makes it a little less crazy.
posted by formless at 11:35 AM on January 28, 2013 [8 favorites]


Is there a backdoor in your firmware that the government is using for that purpose and is locked of so you can't get to it. No. And I stand by that.

Did you know that printers from almost all the major brands print a hidden microdot pattern on every page that allows the individual printer that printed a page to be identified? And that they do this so that the secret service can track down counterfeiters? The government requesting that manufacturers put backdoors into hardware is hardly unprecedented.
posted by Pyry at 11:36 AM on January 28, 2013 [13 favorites]


Does this distinction make categorizing the action as a crime acceptable?

To clarify, my point was not to suggest that phone unlocking should be a crime, simply to distinguish between two different things the original poster was conflating.

If the government outlaws popped collars, and someone says, "That's why I never by my pants from Abercrombie & Fitch," noting the difference between pants and shirts does not imply any particular position on the shirt-related regulations. It's just a point of clarification.
posted by verb at 11:55 AM on January 28, 2013


If the government outlaws popped collars

Finally, a force for good.
posted by kmz at 11:59 AM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


How many times do people have to bring up contracts and termination fees before you realize this is a bogus argument?

I think you keep missing the part where people talked about buying up bunches of subsidized phones, unlocking them and reselling them without ever signing up for a contract.

I understand getting wound up about something, but no. You didn’t pay for the phone yet.

The phone companies just need to just quit doing this, and I’m pretty sure they will really soon. It creates a weird sense in people that they own the phone and is confusing. You’re basically leasing the phone, just in a complicated scheme. It’s like a cable box except they don’t want it back because it will be outdated too quickly.

Unless I have this wrong, way back when you couldn’t own a land line phone at all. They were always leased from the phone company, just like a cable box. I remember when I was a kid they started selling phones and we that was such a strange idea.
posted by bongo_x at 12:10 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think you keep missing the part where people talked about buying up bunches of subsidized phones, unlocking them and reselling them without ever signing up for a contract.


First: Point that out to me? I seem to have missed it.

Second: That would be the original seller's fault for selling a subsidized phone without a contract.

Repeat after me. It is not the government's job to make sure businesses that screw up due to their own stupidity make a profit anyway.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:14 PM on January 28, 2013 [8 favorites]


Unless I have this wrong, way back when you couldn’t own a land line phone at all. They were always leased from the phone company, just like a cable box. I remember when I was a kid they started selling phones and we that was such a strange idea.

Not only this, but you were charged for each line hookup inside your home. My grandfather loves to tell the story about how he crawled around hooking up stub lines off the single phone and buying extra secondhand phones.
posted by odinsdream at 12:14 PM on January 28, 2013


I think you keep missing the part where people talked about buying up bunches of subsidized phones, unlocking them and reselling them without ever signing up for a contract.

Where are people buying subsidized phones without having to sign up for a contract? You can talk about people doing that, it's not the same thing as people actually able to do that in reality.
posted by kmz at 12:14 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


If that's really the aim of these rules, bongo_x, shouldn't the language of the law specify exactly that, instead of granting much broader powers that could easily be misinterpreted by the "librarian of congress," prosecutors and the courts?
posted by saulgoodman at 12:20 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Unless I have this wrong, way back when you couldn’t own a land line phone at all.

Nope, you have it right. It wasn't until the late 60s and the Carterphone decision allowed third-party devices to connect to AT&T's network that we started to see the AT&T monopoly start to fall apart. This was preceded by Hush-a-Phone vs FCC which allowed third-party devices to connect to AT&T devices.

With the ability to connect your own phone to the network, and modify AT&T's phones. AT&T lost their monopoly on devices and ability to force people to rent phones.

There are very real economic arguments about monopolies and third-party innovation to be made for unlocked devices, in addition to the privacy and civil-libertarian arguments.

Most people don't remember history like renting phones. And it's a shame, because even though the technology has advanced so far, we're still connected to networks and the same information economics are still relevant. The renewed push for proprietary devices and rentals on Comcast's network is another example of this.
posted by formless at 12:39 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


aspo: There's some pretty strong laws in the US about wiretapping.
Welcome to 2013, Time-Traveller! Things have really changed in how the US government interprets the Constitution in the last 12 years. Sit down, this is gonna be a shock to you... What shall we go over first? Suspension of habeus corpus, or the principle that wiretapping has a much narrower definition than many would suspect... or how about the fact that warrants aren't required for wiretaps in some instances?
posted by IAmBroom at 12:42 PM on January 28, 2013 [11 favorites]


Unless I have this wrong, way back when you couldn’t own a land line phone at all. They were always leased from the phone company, just like a cable box.

Sure, but that was back when Bell had what was later ruled to be an illegal monopoly on phone service, so that's not necessarily something anyone would argue was ever in consumers' best interests, just as I suspect many consumers would love to trade their leased cable boxes in for more flexible devices that offered a broader range of services from different cable providers (like for example, ala carte pricing for all channels, rather than channel packages that are dictated to them by the business needs of the cable service providers, as when cable channels cut deals with the regional cable provider to ensure they'll have an opportunity to get their ads in front of enough consumer eyeballs to justify the price tags for the ad space they're selling).
posted by saulgoodman at 12:45 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


That does it! I'm making my OWN iPhone!

Or you COULD ... become a ham radio operator, get yourself one of those no-code licenses, get yourself a 1 or 5-watt handheld using (long-distance) VHF (instead of one of those wimpy 0.1-watt phones for UHF). No internet of course, talking to actual people is not optional. $70-300.
posted by Twang at 12:49 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is there a backdoor in your firmware that the government is using for that purpose and is locked of so you can't get to it. No. And I stand by that.

Speaking of the importance of remembering history, anybody remember _NSAKEY?

Good times.. good times.

I admit, it sometimes gets exhausting talking about the long documented history of cryptography and the continual fight for privacy.

I'm sure you'll bring up the point that NSAKEY happened over 13 years ago. But I think enough people have brought up counter-arguments and real-world examples of firmware that offer these abilities in today's present devices. We haven't even discussed Intel's IEFI yet, have we?

Maybe they're not being used by anyone. But the point is, by design we have no way of knowing. We can't know what our own devices are being used for.
posted by formless at 12:57 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


so that's not necessarily something anyone would argue was ever in consumers' best interests,

No one said that. I said there is precedent, it’s nearly always been that way. Buying a crippled phone for cheap and complaining about it is like complaining about the ATT supplied phones after the breakup. Buy your own unlocked phone. If that weren’t an available option then you’d have a much more valid complaint.
posted by bongo_x at 1:11 PM on January 28, 2013


I'm still waiting to know where you can buy subsidized phones and not sign up for a contract cause that sounds pretty awesome. Don't hold out on us!
posted by kmz at 1:15 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


PENALTY: In some situations, first time offenders may be fined up to $500,000, imprisoned for five years, or both. For repeat offenders, the maximum penalty increases to a fine of $1,000,000, imprisonment for up to ten years, or both.*


See, it's crap like this that fuels the gun nuts. How are they expected to have any faith or confidence in an entity that makes unlocking your whatever more egregious than half the laws covering violent crime?
posted by notreally at 1:16 PM on January 28, 2013


kmz I'm still waiting to know where you can buy subsidized phones and not sign up for a contract cause that sounds pretty awesome. Don't hold out on us!

Everyone is talking about "Pay as you go" or "prepaid" plans. You buy a phone for less than it's worth (sometimes much less), buy minutes every month. Pretty much every carrier does it. And the phones used in those schemes are subsidized.

for instance, Virgin Mobile sells a Galaxy S II at 279, with a month-to-month contract. The unlocked price is 420.

Admittedly, this is not a perfect comparison (as Virgin Mobile is a CDMA network, and the unlocked phone is GSM, and I don't know if the Virgin Galaxy S II is dual radio), but its illustrative of what people are talking about. Without this restriction in place, you can buy up tons of cheap prepaid phones, unlock them en masse, and then resell them on eBay/craigslist etc.
posted by grandsham at 1:43 PM on January 28, 2013


Perhaps, but those prepaid phones (like the Galaxy SII) are typically 1-2 generations behind and not particularly desirable on the resale market, especially at that price.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:47 PM on January 28, 2013


Funnily enough 20$ is actually the unsubsidised price of a phone where you can replace the firmware and actually muck around with the baseband firmware. (At 29:050 in the video you see how this can be used in practice to capture SMS messages.)

But, that is of course in the "real world", and should not intrude in the discussion of how it is the right of US corporations to have breaches of their civil contracts be a criminal offence, even if the criminal has not signed any contracts, or is aware that this is the case.
posted by Baron Humbert von Gikkingen at 1:50 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


thank you for providing a another wonderful object lesson in pay-as-you-go subsidizing, Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. That 20$ phone is the tracphone pay-as-you-go price. The actual cost for the unlocked version of that phone is more like 70$.

Tracphone sells that phone at 20 bucks with an expectation that you will buy your minutes from them, and in the long run they'll make back their investment. If you don't buy the minutes, you don't pay an early termination fee, but you also can't use your phone with another carrier, unless you unlock it.
posted by grandsham at 1:57 PM on January 28, 2013


Which is no reason for that expectation, which is so important to them that they don't even bother with a civil contract, to be backed by the threat of arrest.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 2:05 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


* The big, bad government is coming to get your guns and your unlocked smart phones.
We really should see about starting a comparable saber-rattling body in favor of digital rights. At this rate it'll be the only thing that has any effect. (Of course you could say there already is one, and it's called Anonymous.)

* Congress is dysfunctional! Incapable of action due to deep ideological divide! Filibuster! No super majority -- Sorry!
Oh wait...

The DCMA was passed before the current eternal loggerheads began.

* When people finally get fed up entirely, even the librarians won't be safe.
Let's not kid ourselves. When people get fed up entirely and take arms against their government, they will get beat the hell down. Then the govenment will use that as an excuse to crack down still further.

* I'm not sure this law is as bad as people are making it out to be.
Someone says that in practically every thread about some awful law.

* there's almost nothing a capitalist hates more than the free market, and they'll typically do anything they can to prevent one.
Remember this.

* Don't yell at the librarians. Yell at their bosses that you (yes, you!) hired.
It was noted above that this decision was made by the head of the Library of Congress, a Reagan appointee who apparently has his job for life. Saying YOU hired them is disingenuous -- that was five presidents, and seven or eight terms ago.

* And a prison sentence. Am I the only one that thinks prison should be reserved for physically dangerous people? Christ.
To my knowledge, the tendency for extrememy large, sends-a-message punishments arose when the War On Drugs began. Yet another extremely odious thing that left us with.

* The Nexus 7 is apparently very nice hardware, but it's in very short supply.
I might have $6 to my name at the moment, but ♪I have one♪.

* This post is framed for maximum agitation.
This isn't the first place I've heard about it. The agitation is in the air, the post just reflects it.

* It's a racket. It's all a racket.
This is true. The reason I don't have a cell phone is because I've never seen a non-exploitive cell phone contract. I mean, charging extra for texts?! That's bullshit.

* But if you try to make a side business out of this, or write software that makes it easy to do, etc etc, the powers that be will come down on you so hard. And that's what this is all about. Noone cares if a few nerds unlock phones, they care if most people can do it, so they make it illegal and boom, problem solved (for the phone companies.)
Inaccurate. This purposely criminalizes a few nerds doing it by imposing huge fines. Stopping people from making a business out of it is easier -- you just have to make the fine larger than the value obtained for one performance of the service, which is certainly much less than $1M.
posted by JHarris at 3:01 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Without this restriction in place, you can buy up tons of cheap prepaid phones, unlock them en masse, and then resell them on eBay/craigslist etc.

That was already illegal under the DMCA (lets never mind that none of this has anything to do with copyright). The exemption was only for unlocking to operate your own phone on another network, not to sell a phone at a profit. Tracfone sucessfully sued people for doing just what you describe, even after the exemption was put in place.

So. Since the situation you described is not applicable, why should I go to prison or pay a huge fine to unlock my cell phone?
posted by dirigibleman at 4:07 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


grandsham: Oh come on, I merely picked the first price on Amazon. Here is another price, still on Amazon, and just 19.99$.

So, Trackphone has a profit on every single phone they sells, they don't need to subsidize the phone at all. (I'm sorry that I picked the wrong link, I actually didn't imagine anyone would think that this was a subsidized phone. 70$ buys you an unlocked low-end Android smart phone these days - I expect the wholesale price for this phone is closer to 13$.)

But, of course, I'm still interested in how you explaining how this non-existing need to subsidize low-end phones is reason enough for the US government to jail and fine consumers who break really minor civil contracts. (Should any lobbyists be gifted with such laws?)
posted by Baron Humbert von Gikkingen at 4:25 PM on January 28, 2013


Without this restriction in place, you can buy up tons of cheap prepaid phones, unlock them en masse, and then resell them on eBay/craigslist etc.

Please explain why it's the responsibility of the government to protect the profit interests of about 15 companies.
posted by odinsdream at 4:55 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


dirigibleman: The exemption was only for unlocking to operate your own phone on another network, not to sell a phone at a profit

I haven't read anything that says that the exemption was limited to unlocking for operating on separate networks, rather a blanket exemption on unlocking phones (which includes the original government opinion from 2006).



Baron Humbert
given that every other retailer I saw that had that phone at ~70$ , it seems more likely that CellPhoneUnlockKings is either doing the mass unlock thing, is selling refurb phones (which some of their negative reviews seem to suggest). I would be interested where you could find a low-end android phone unlocked from a reputable retailer for 70 dollars.


Don't get me wrong, I am in favor of users being in control of their devices. I think a very narrow exemption for personal use makes sense. I think even the possibility of a 500k fine or 5 years in jail time for unlocking your phone, whatever the probability of that happening, is absurd. And I also think the best way to ensure that that doesn't happen is by getting the DMCA off the books.

That said, I can understand how the LoC comes to this conclusion. By making third party unlocking illegal, they make it harder to get third party unlocking tools, which prevents mass unlocking for profit. Personal unlocking gets caught in the crossfire, relegated to the kindness of cellphone carriers. I don't think that's the best way to go about stopping it, but I can at least understand how it breaks down that way.

Mostly, I've been posting to refute the claim by kmz that subsidized phones without a 2 year contract are impossible to obtain.
posted by grandsham at 4:57 PM on January 28, 2013


From the TRACFONE terms and conditions:

Any other use of your TRACFONE handset, including without limitation, any resale, unlocking and/or reflashing of the handset is unauthorized and constitutes a violation of your agreement with TracFone Wireless. You agree not to unlock, reflash, tamper with or alter your TRACFONE or its software, enter unauthorized PIN numbers, engage in any other unauthorized or illegal use of your TRACFONE or the Service, or assist others in such acts, or to sell and/or export TRACFONE handsets outside of the United States.

This was why the DMCA was written in the first place. To enforce terms of service like the one above, because technical solutions to prevent users from modifying devices weren't working (and can't ever really).

And the long case history shows that. Refilling your ink cartridges? Get sued by Lexmark. Writing software to back up DVDs? Get sued by the MPAA. Reverse engineering the Blizzard Battle.net protocol? Get sued by Blizzard.
posted by formless at 4:58 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I haven't read anything that says that the exemption was limited to unlocking for operating on separate networks,

Did you read the link I posted?

rather a blanket exemption on unlocking phones (which includes the original government opinion from 2006).

Section III(A)(5) (emphasis mine):
Computer programs in the form of firmware that enable wireless telephone handsets to connect to a wireless telephone communication network, when circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of lawfully connecting to a wireless telephone communication network.
It also goes into a long discussion about how unlocking has nothing to do with access to copyrighted works. It's interesting that they struck this down while keeping the exemption for rooting/jailbreaking, which clearly involves access to copyrighted works.
posted by dirigibleman at 5:28 PM on January 28, 2013


IMO, this is a better, more thorough article on the exemptions. Did you know it's still a crime to jailbreak your iPad? Apparently the removal of the unlocking exemption somehow comes from this case, in which it was ruled that reselling software is a crime if the EULA forbids it. I guess they decided that since carrier unlocking violates an EULA, it should be a crime. How, then, they decided that jailbreaking a phone (but only a phone, not a tablet or any other device), which also violates the EULA, should have an exemption is beyond me (and I'm guessing beyond them).
posted by dirigibleman at 6:05 PM on January 28, 2013


Did you read the link I posted?

Yep, including this part:
None have gone to trial, so TracFone's DMCA theory hasn't been tested. But even if the DMCA exemption were found to apply, the defendants would still face the other claims in the lawsuits.
They have been winning cases on settlements, not in court, probably because fly-by-night mass phone unlockers didn't think they would be able to win against a huge raft of claims. Every quote in that article about the DMCA exemption only applying to personal use comes from a representative of a prepaid phone company. The article also talks about companies making money selling used unlocked phones, which would presumably still fall outside of the DMCA exemption.

I read the bolded part of the the government opinion as unlocking for some other illegal reason, like creating a cell-phone jammer. Only being able to unlock your phone for personal use would seem to suggest that you could never sell it, unless you relocked it. It could be argued that companies selling masses of unlocked phones did the unlocking solely so they could be connected to other wireless telephone communication networks, then selling them.

IANAL, of course, and the whole thing is sort of moot since its no longer allowed at all (except for phones so old you are unable to get an unlock code from the carrier), but I can understand why the LoC came to their decision under the framework of the laws, even if I don't agree with those laws.
posted by grandsham at 7:26 PM on January 28, 2013


Prison time is very expensive; and so is the criminal justice system where these cases would have to be prosecuted. I totally understand that the phone companies want this to be a criminal matter, but where's the public interest in this? Why should we, the public, subsidise their business model?
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:59 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


One thing I didn't notice the first time:
for instance, Virgin Mobile sells a Galaxy S II at 279, with a month-to-month contract. The unlocked price is 420.

Those phones are gray-market imports from countries that allow or require unlocking, hence the lack of warranty. I'm surprised Amazon is allowing them to be sold through their site, as it's probably not legal to sell them.

AFAIK, the only legal-to-sell phones unlocked from the factory are the iPhone 5 and the Nexus 4, and maybe some dumb phones, and then only on GSM networks. In a few years, and especially as LTE becomes the norm across all networks, I doubt there will be a single phone sold in the US that is unlocked.
posted by dirigibleman at 3:23 AM on January 29, 2013


I doubt there will be a single phone sold in the US that is unlocked.

I’m betting within just a couple years there won’t be any locked phones sold here.
posted by bongo_x at 9:58 AM on January 29, 2013


I'd be pleased if Apple followed Google's example and started selling reasonably (for some definitions of the term) priced unlocked phones direct to consumers to stick another fork in the eye of the carriers here.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:02 AM on January 29, 2013


It would be completely hypocritical for Apple to shaft carriers in that way, while leaving its own DRM and lockdown regime in place.
posted by Malor at 11:29 AM on January 29, 2013


Yeah, well life is full of contradictions and this thread isn't about that.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:31 AM on January 29, 2013


I’m betting within just a couple years there won’t be any locked phones sold here.

You trust people's ability to do math way more than I do.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:00 PM on January 29, 2013


That Atlantic article, which fails to describe the issue with any kind of coherency, was a terrible way to bring this discussion to Metafilter.

I've been thinking that perhaps its time for a moratorium on SLAA
posted by infini at 12:46 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I’m betting within just a couple years there won’t be any locked phones sold here.

Sprint already refuses to allow unlocked phones on their network and refuses to unlock their own phones. The others will follow suit. There's no reason for them not to, now.
posted by dirigibleman at 2:54 PM on January 29, 2013


Nexus 4s are back in stock in multiple countries now.
posted by dobbs at 6:31 PM on January 29, 2013


Thanks, dobbs. They're pretty tempting. I have the prior-gen Galaxy Nexus, and it is very, very nice. It looks like the newer version does everything mine does, better. The screen is probably the biggest improvement; it's using a regular LCD now, instead of the weird Pentile OLED in the GNex, so the colors are closer to correct, and it's readable in sunlight. It has more RAM, and it's quad- instead of dual-core, but I doubt most folks would notice that. The screen, though, they would.

Like the GNex, it will work in HSPA+ mode on both T-Mobile and AT&T, so you can use it on either carrier at full speed. It's not as fast as LTE, but LTE right now is a real battery-killer. HSPA+ is very fast, more than you need for a phone, so it's a better solution at the moment.
posted by Malor at 9:09 PM on January 29, 2013


dirigibleman, why would selling an unlocked cell phone be illegal? There is the possibility that the Supreme court will rule selling foreign-made good illegal to resell, but that doesn't have any bearing on the sale of new factory-unlocked phones in the US.

And while Sprint refuses to allow unlocked phones on their network, I feel like thats sort of moot since almost all unlocked phones are GSM (I'm not even sure how you would hook an unlocked CDMA phone up to Sprint or Verizon, since there's no SIM card). There are 2 main GSM carriers (T-Mobile and AT&T) and a bevy of smaller companies that also do it.

Do you think that "grey-market" retailers like newegg are breaking the law?

As to this:
Sprint already refuses to allow unlocked phones on their network and refuses to unlock their own phones. The others will follow suit. There's no reason for them not to, now.
one of the main reasons cited for discontinuing the exemption for unlocking was that carriers have gotten much better about unlocking users phones. If the carriers reverse this stance, then I suspect the unlocking exemption will make a return.
posted by grandsham at 10:47 AM on January 30, 2013


Just avoid phone contracts completely. Why "pay interest" on your phone? There are many providers prepaid or monthly like StraightTalk and AirVoice that cost far less than subsidized phone contracts.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:11 AM on February 27, 2013


jeffburdges: Just avoid phone contracts completely. Why "pay interest" on your phone? There are many providers prepaid or monthly like StraightTalk and AirVoice that cost far less than subsidized phone contracts.
Serious question, then, from someone who really would like to go that way: What happens to phone and internet access with those phones when you travel? I don't mean "once you land in another major US city", but if I drive across Ohio, or up from Pittsburgh to Erie, as a Sprint/Verizon/AT&T customer I'm pretty-well assured of continuous coverage (with an exception in one valley I know of, but that's not carrier-dependent). Could I say the same if I had a prepaid phone from some other carrier? Or even phone but not data?
posted by IAmBroom at 10:32 AM on February 27, 2013


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