Late last month, the UK banned carriers from locking smartphones. Now, Wired is reporting that the same thing might happen in the U.S. in 2021, as consumer activists push legislators to do away with some pesky regulations that allow for locked phones in the first place.
The reason for locked smartphones can be traced back to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, more commonly referred to as DMCA. Signed in 1998, it was meant to prevent things like digital piracy but Section 1201 has since been used by carriers as a means of justifying locked phones. Specifically, Section 1201 states that “No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title.” Phone carriers ostensibly claim unlocked phones do just that.
Some things have since changed. In 2015, it finally became legal for consumers to unlock their phones thanks to the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act. The thing was the act made it so consumers wouldn’t get penalized for unlocking their phones. Carriers weren’t required to unlock their phones by default. They just had to provide a means to unlock the phone. That’s why it was technically OK for Verizon to go back to selling locked phones in 2018, with the bogus argument that it would “help prevent theft.”
As it currently stands, most carriers make you jump through hoops to unlock your phone. It’s not hard per se, but it is just annoying enough to discourage the average person from the hassle of switching carriers. Personally, I’ve been “trying” for a year but the thought of actually getting the process started immediately zaps whatever will I have to live. A locked phone also makes it challenging to resell your phone as it lowers the resale value and incentivizes recyclers to scrap a smartphone instead of reselling it.
So...why is next year the year that carriers might finally officially eat it? According to Wired, there are two major reasons. First, God willing, Trump, and his administration are out. That means the Federal Communications Commission is due for new leadership. The current FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai is, to put it lightly, a pro-business dingus. It’s uncertain whether a Biden administration would be more pro-consumer, but it’s clear that banning carriers from selling locked phones would be a nonstarter under Pai.
Secondly, the U.S. Library of Congress and Copyright Office will be holding its Eighth Triennial Section 1201 Proceeding in 2021—and the public is allowed to comment. Meaning, if you hate carriers and locked phones, you can electronically submit a short comment stating why. (The deadline for the first round of comments is Dec. 14.) It’s also a chance for consumer advocacy and right to repair organizations to plead their case as to why unlocked phones are better for consumers. These sessions have been effective in the past. In 2018, the Library of Congress ruled that manufacturers using digital rights management protections couldn’t prevent consumers from repairing their own devices, including gadgets like phones, tablets, TVs, cars, and connected appliances.
Neither of these two avenues is guaranteed to make carriers do the right thing, but more pressure is always good. If you truly have been adversely affected, it’s worth taking the ten minutes to shoot off a written statement telling Congress why carriers locking phones is a phenomenally Bad Idea.