Unlock a Phone – Go To Jail?

Unlocking, jailbreaking, and related activities are now criminal offenses. Before anyone gets tossed in the slammer, however, we ought to re-think this mess.

I have argued for some time that the predominant model of carriers subsidizing handsets makes absolutely no sense.  Carriers should carry; competition among carriers based on a wide variety of factors should hold down the price of service. But a carrier owning a customer by locking the user's handset is about as anti-competitive as it gets. Sure, the handset is subsidized, but what does a consumer really end up paying for the handset? Since we have no free market here, it's hard to say - but I'm willing to bet that unlocked, unsubsidized handsets sold under competitive conditions would save a consumer real money. And that consumer would also be free to use that unlocked handset on whatever network they'd like, whenever they'd like. Sure, a carrier could offer a lower price, as cable firms do, for a long-term commitment, but such would in no way prevent the use of a given handset on another network - during the term of the agreement, or after. And having to petition one's carrier to unlock one's handset at the end of a commitment period is completely unreasonable; such unlocking should be automatic and required by law.

I also fail to see any copyright issue at work here, and I fail to see how the infamous Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) applies, or why the Librarian of Congress should be the regulator here. But, then, I'm not a lawyer - I'm just an analyst who is mystified that the free market once again, with the full cooperation and, indeed, support, of the government, is being crippled so as to make certain entities more money at the expense of those of us who pay the bills. Sure, a deal's a deal, and no one should violate an agreement that was executed voluntarily. But what we continue to really need here is a truly free market that separates subscriber units and service, something that is oddly less likely with this ruling. Anything else is simply legislating profits and harming the consumer.

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