Cellphone Unlocking May Become Easier for the U.S. Consumers

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Unlocking Battle

More than 114.000 consumers signed a petition to the White House in a move to cancel the Congress’s decision to abolish cell phone unlocking and make it illegal. The answer to the petition comes almost twelve months later.

Finally, some good news for consumers on the year-long unlocking battle – the Federal Communication Commission made an agreement with wireless carriers to facilitate the unlocking of their mobile devices process for those consumers who want to proceed with it.

The unlocking activists group was eclectic, uniting tech geeks, advocates of consumer rights, phone repair shops, digital security groups and electronic recyclers, as well as conservatives. The motion’s motto was “You bought it; you should own it.”

The Six Principles

The scarce opposition, largely criticized by the press and public, was CTIA, the group lobbying interests of wireless carriers. The public outrage turned out to be so huge, it pressed the FCC and Congress to issue bills to fix the issue, and finally CTIA was basically forced to yield to pressure and adopt the following six principles for unlocking mobile phones and tablets:

1. A wireless carrier must have clear and concise policy on prepaid and postpaid device unlocking available on its official website. The information must be easily accessible by the general public.

2. For postpaid plans, unlocking devices will be performed by wireless carriers or third-party providers, with the carrier providing clear instructions on the process. The eligible devices will have all terms and conditions of the contract covered and all payments and termination fees paid with due diligence.

3. For prepaid devices, unlocking will be performed by carriers no later than a year after the device has been activated, in compliance with usage requirement.

4. Wireless carriers must clearly notify their consumers when their devices become eligible for unlocking, or unlock the devices automatically and remotely, without any additional fees.

5. Wireless carriers must respond to the unlocking request within two days after the request has been filed. Within this timeframe, the device must be unlocked, if it is eligible, or offer a reasonable explanation of why the device does not qualify, yet, or explain why the carriers needs more time to finalize the unlocking procedure.

6. Wireless carriers must unlock mobile devices of deployed military personnel, provided they present the deployment papers.

When Will We See the Changes?

CTIA, of course, needs some time to roll out the implementation of the rules. Allegedly, they will start implementing three rules out of six within the next three months, although it is not clear which of the three. Full implementation is expected in 12 months; maybe they hope they still can appeal and lobby for some amendments to the rules.

However, the six rules do not solve the unlocking issue completely. The consumers will be able to request a “key” from the wireless carriers, but they won’t be able to do unlock their devices on their own. The unlocking programs are still unavailable for general consumers, and their developers are still under the risk of dire fines of $500.000 and 5 years behind bars.

The refurbished devices providers did not get any fix, either. Non-customer organizations that refurbish devices will have to pay ‘reasonable fees’ to get the devices unlocked and be able to sell them. The already narrow profit margin gets cut even further; bad news for refurbishers and customers. According to Recellular, after labor cost and spare parts costs, they sometimes make as little as $5 on one device.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act

The unlocking debate made way for a larger debate on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act enacted in 1998, which enabled the Librarian of Congress to illegalize the unlocking in the first place. Activists in the anti-DMCA movement state that some clauses in it are used by wireless carriers and device manufacturers to reject security researchers’ inquiries and violate consumer rights.

The six rules of unlocking offer a quick and irrelevant fix for security and consumer rights, on the larger scale. Obama’s administration has been reluctant in the cell phone unlocking debacle, publicly advocating the reform, but behind the scenes lobbying the DMCA expansion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty, a position that would have remained secret if it weren’t for the Wikileaks that published the treaty’s draft. If adopted, it would make it impossible for the Congress to legalize unlocking at all.

A small battle won by the consumers, but a large war for consumer rights and privacy is still in progress. I guess it won’t be long until we see the next CTIA maneuver.