Jan 27 2013, 10:31 AM ET 814
When did we decide that we wanted a law that could make unlocking your smartphone a criminal offense? The answer is that we never really decided.
This is now the law of the land:
BY DECREE OF THE LIBRARIAN OF CONGRESS
IT SHALL HENCEFORCE BE ORDERED THAT AMERICANS SHALL NOT UNLOCK THEIR OWN SMARTPHONES.
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.*
That's right, starting this weekend it is illegal to unlock new phones to make them available on other carriers.
I have deep sympathy for any individual who happens to get jail time for this offense. I am sure that other offenders would not take kindly to smartphone un-lockers.
But seriously: It's embarrassing and unacceptable that we are at the mercy of prosecutorial and judicial discretion** to avoid the implementation of draconian laws that could implicate average Americans in a crime subject to up to a $500,000 fine and up to five years in prison.
If people see this and respond, well no one is really going to get those types of penalties, my response is: Why is that acceptable? While people's worst fears may be a bit unfounded, why do we accept a system where we allow such discretionary authority? If you or your child were arrested for this, would it comfort you to know that the prosecutor and judge could technically throw the book at you? Would you relax assuming that they probably wouldn't make an example out of you or your kid? When as a society did we learn to accept the federal government having such Orwellian power? And is this the same country that used jury nullification against laws that it found to be unjust as an additional check upon excessive government power? [The only silver lining is that realistically it's more likely that violators would be subject to civil liability under Section 1203 of the DMCA, instead of the fine and jail penalties, but this is still unacceptable (but anyone who accepts payments to help others unlock their phones would clearly be subject to the fine of up to $500,000 and up to five years in jail).]
WHO REALLY OWNS YOUR PHONE?
When did we decide that we wanted a law that could make unlocking your smartphone a criminal offense?
The answer is that we never really decided. Instead, Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998 to outlaw technologies that bypass copyright protections. This sounds like a great idea, but in practice it has terrible, and widely acknowledged, negative consequences that affect consumers and new innovation. The DMCA leaves it up to the Librarian of Congress (LOC) to issue exemptions from the law, exceptions that were recognized to be necessary given the broad language of the statute that swept a number of ordinary acts and technologies as potential DMCA circumvention violations.
Every three years groups like the American Foundation for the Blind have to lobby Congress to protect an exception for the blind allowing for books to be read aloud. Can you imagine a more ridiculous regulation than one that requires a lobby group for the blind to come to Capitol Hill every three years to explain that the blind still can't read books on their own and therefore need this exception?
* Specifically this refers to Section 1204 of Public Law 105-304, which provides that "any person who violates section 1201 or 1201 willfully and for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain. . .[shall be subject to the listed penalties]." 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. There are several cases that have established similar precedents where stealing coaxial cable for personal use has been held to be for "purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain." (See Cablevision Sys. New York City Corp. v. Lokshin, 980 F. Supp. 107, 109 (E.D.N.Y. 1997)); (Cablevision Sys. Dev. Co. v. Cherrywood Pizza, 133 Misc. 2d 879, 881, 508 N.Y.S.2d 382, 383 (Sup. Ct. 1986)).
** The Ninth Circuit recently explained in United States v. Nosal, 676 F.3d 854 (9th Cir. 2012) that under a "broad interpretation of the [Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) you could be prosecuted for personal use of work computers]." The court explained that under this approach "While it's unlikely that you'll be prosecuted for watching Reason.TV on your work computer, you could be [emphasis in original]. Employers wanting to rid themselves of troublesome employees. . . could threaten to report them to the FBI unless the quit. Ubiquitous, seldom-prosecuted crimes invite arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement." The Court rejected this interpretation which would have made regular activity by average citizens as a potential felony and ruled that running afoul of a corporate computer use restriction does not violate the CFAA. It's possible that here a court would use judicial discretion to narrowly interpret the DMCA and reject the broad definitions that are typically advanced by the government.