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The Phone Unlocking Legal Battle And Why It’s Important

As many of you probably know, unlocking your phone was recently outlawed in the US and it caused quite a fuss when it happened. After all, it had been legal for over half a decade before hand, but with pressure from mobile providers coming thick and fast, the bill was passed and now users who unlock their phones face incredibly harsh punishments if they are caught doing so outwith their carrier’s permission.

How harsh are these punishments?

Well, those found breaking the unlocking ban can face, and this isn’t an exaggeration here, a potential $500,000 fine and 5 years in prison. And that’s the potential sentencing for first time offenders. If you’re caught a second time, the sentence doubles.

Aside from the disproportionate punishments for breaking this new law, it also traps customers of the various carriers into either sticking with the same company or having to go through whatever process the carrier has for doing a “legal” unlocking.

In the case of AT&T, many customers who have tried to unlock their phones have been made to jump through various bureaucratic hoops to do so and even then, sometimes are told that it turns out their phones can’t be unlocked anyways. There’s also the issue that the “unlocking” that is usually done by carriers is similar to a temporary unlock for say, a holiday, and the more permanent unlocking constantly has its goal posts shifted constantly to try to prevent customers jumping ship from the carrier.

The phone unlocking debate also raises a larger issue over device ownership and also our ownership of the mobile sphere. If customers can’t unlock their phones and use the physical devices they have paid good money for however they want, instead of being owners of these devices they’re more just renting them from the carrier. And if users are just renting these devices to use, what does that then imply for ownership of their information and also, the apps that are on their phones?

It seems to be that by outlawing phone unlocking, a fairly murky set of legal ownership issues come to the forefront that could imply big problems for users in the future due the ramifications of storing personal data on a “rented” device. After all if it’s rented, what does that then give the carriers in terms of power over users data? Do they actually own it instead of the user? Could they push for more access to that data?

Luckily this is something that we don’t need to go into in too much detail because the White House recently announced that they are backing a bid to overturn the outlawing of private phone unlocking.

Some are calling this a cheap political move after there was so much obvious discontent over the original move but it make sense really. It’s a win-win situation for everyone, bar the carriers. Democrats get a win of liberty vs big business, Republicans get a win against regulation, customers get back their right to unlock their phones and the current administration get a boost in votes for the Congressional race.

It also sets a standard for the rest of the world where it’s shown that customers definitely do not want to have their right to unlock their phones restricted and is likely to help keep heavy regulation of these things out of official law.

Which is, of course, good news for mobile customers and app developers.

Whilst of course, there should be some regulation in every industry, preventing customer freedom to the extent of marrying them to their carriers whims is probably a step too far in our eyes. By allowing customers the freedom to move carriers, it creates much stronger business incentives for the networks to offer competitive rates and devices and encourage the adoption of modern handsets.

And all of these things benefit app developers. More customers, more devices, more money in the industry all means more money able to come back to you.


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