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Unlocking Cell Phones Could Land Users In Jail

Filed by KOSU News in Business.
February 20, 2013

Maybe you don’t like your cell carrier but you like your phone and you want keep it and charge providers. Well, a change in the law makes it illegal to switch without permission from your carrier.

That’s because if you have, for example, AT&T, in order to switch to T Mobile you have to unlock the phone and AT&T can now stop you from that.

The change in the law has got some people upset. Sina Khanifar is backing a petition to the White House against the rule change. In 2005 he left California to go to school in England.

“I had taken a phone from here in California with me. While I was there I couldn’t use it,” he said.

Khanifar had a Motorola Razer. The phone was locked into AT&T’s network and they didn’t have AT&T in England. So, he figured out a way to unlock his phone and connect it to a British carrier. Khanifar started a business selling the unlocking software to other travelers who might be stuck the way he was.

“It was great! It was helping me pay my college tuition,” he said.

Until one day. “I got a cease-and-desist letter from Motorola,” Khanifar said.

Khanifar says the letter charged him with violating copyright law. He faced up to five years in prison for unlocking his phone. An American civil liberties group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, stepped in to help him.

The group petitioned the copyright office in Washington, D.C. Staff attorney Mitch Stoltz said “the copyright office created a legal shield for people who are unlocking their cell phones.”

But, the shield only lasts three years. Then the copyright office, which is part of the Library of Congress, has to renew it.

Gayle Osterberg, a spokesperson from the library says during the last review they determined it was ok for companies to decide when to unlock a phone.

“The evidence showed that the market has changed,” she said. “There are a wide variety of new phones that are already available unlocked and cell phone carriers have relaxed their unlocking policies.”

So now, if you buy a phone from AT&T and get a two year contract, even when that contract is up, you will still have to ask permission from AT&T or Verizon or T-Mobile, to change your phone to a new carrier.

Sina Khanifar, who still travels a lot, started a petition to the White House against the rule change.

“I mean it really just runs counter to sort of your common sense intuition about this kind of thing,” he said. “Once you bought it you should be able to do what you want with it.”

The U.S. carriers see it differently. In a statement, the CTIA, a trade group for the wireless industry, said when customers buy a phone with a two-year contract they get a discount. So, the carrier should be able to prevent them from going elsewhere.

Outside an Apple store in San Francisco a lot of iPhone users like Emil Sarkisov found the reasoning perplexing.

“Once my contract is up and I’m not gonna give up my phone when I give back the contract right? I still keep the phone,” he said. “So, why can’t I do whatever I want with it?”

Other cell phone users outside the store like Calvin Su were concerned about what they would do when they travel. Su says using an American carrier is expensive outside of the U.S. So, he usually unlocks the phone and connects to a local carrier. Su worries he won’t be able to do that anymore. He said, “It will have a negative impact for me.”

Su can join the people who are signing the petition to the White House. The petitioners have until Friday to get 100,000 signers; they’ve got 80,000 so far.

The White House can’t tell the Library of Congress what to do but it can put pressure on the library and Congress to change the law. [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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