Locking cell phones is anti-consumer and anti-environment

March 5th, 2013

White House agrees with consumers – we should be able to unlock our cell phones

In the U.S., when we buy a cell phone, it is usually “locked” to a particular cell phone carrier, like ATT or T-Mobile. You can’t use it on a different carrier without “unlocking” it, which involves entering a few codes on some phones, although it’s more complicated on other phones.

But recently, the cell phone carriers pressured the federal government to make it illegal to unlock a phone, even after the contract was up. The penalty can be an astonishing $500,000 and up to 5 years in jail, if you do this for commercial gain.  While consumers probably might not face such a stiff penalty, think about all the phone refurbishers who sell used phones to second and third users. They need to be able to unlock phones in order to sell them to new owners.

This change prompted over 114,000 people to sign a petition to the White House, which led the White House to issue a statement yesterday saying it opposed this new change, and it thinks we should be able to unlock our phones AND tablets.

What changed?

Technically what happened was that effective January 26, 2013,  the Library of Congress cancelled  an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”), which had allowed us to unlock our phones without the carrier’s permission.  What in the world does the Library of Congress have to do with our cell phones? It’s because the software in your phone is copyrighted, and the U.S. Copyright office is part of the Library of Congress. The carriers say they believe that unlocking phones undermines the software encryption protection.  Conveniently for them, if you can’t unlock your phone, you must continue to pay that carrier for service.

Why we need to be able to unlock our phones?

Freedom to switch carriers. With an unlocked phone, once your contract is up, you can switch carriers without buying a new phone.

Use your phone overseas: If you travel to Europe, you will incur expensive roaming charges if you use your GSM phone there. But with an unlocked phone, you can buy a different SIM card to use while you are there, saving a lot of money if you plan to use your phone.

Reuse. Probably the most compelling reason we should be able to unlock our phones is that an unlocked phone is much more likely to be reused, since it can be used on any carrier’s network. The environmental footprint from manufacturing new phones is significant, so anything that promotes the reuse of a phone to a second or third owner, is important and worth doing. This change has thrown a serious wrench into the business model of  phone refurbishers who need to be able to unlock phones in order to sell them to new owners.

Ownership. Because we paid for our phones, so we should actually OWN them. If it’s locked, then we don’t really own it.

Free our phones

Click to sign the “Free our phones” petition.

What can you do?

Two members of Congress, Senator Amy Klobuchar of MN, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz of UT, have said this week that they will sponsor legislation to fix this ridiculous problem.

Right now, you can sign’s FREE OUR PHONES petition to Congress, urging them to take action.

Once the bills are introduced, we will have letter in our action center that you can send to your Senator and Representative asking them to pass this legislation.