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Law Change Makes It Harder To Unlock Cellphones

Feb 20, 2013
Originally published on February 20, 2013 9:41 am

Maybe you don't like your mobile phone carrier, but you like your phone and you want to keep it but change providers. An obscure change in federal law makes it illegal to switch without permission from your carrier.

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 doing that.

The change in the copyright law has some people upset, and they're petitioning the White House for a fix.

Sina Khanifar, who is backing the petition, has been personally affected by the rules. 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 Razr. The phone was locked into AT&T's network, but there was no AT&T in England, so Khanifar figured out a way to unlock his phone and connect it to a British carrier. He 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 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, stepped in to help him.

The group petitioned the copyright office in Washington, D.C. EFF staff attorney Mitch Stoltz said "the copyright office created a legal shield for people who are unlocking their cellphones."

But the shield only lasts for three years at a time. Then the Copyright Office, which is part of the Library of Congress, has to renew it.

Gayle Osterberg, a spokesperson from the Library of Congress, says during the last review they determined it was OK for companies to decide when to unlock a phone. So the shield wasn't renewed.

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

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 to change your phone to a new carrier.

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

"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, including Emil Sarkisov, found the reasoning perplexing.

"Once my contract is up — and I'm not going to 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 cellphone users outside the store were concerned about what they would do when they travel. Calvin Su said using an American carrier is expensive outside the U.S., so he usually unlocks the phone and connects to a local carrier. Su worries that he won't be able to do that anymore.

"It will have a negative impact for me," he said.

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 have 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 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An obscure change in federal law has made it harder for you to change cell phone carriers. Suppose you want to change providers but you do not want to buy a new phone. You would have to unlock your existing phone from the original carrier. And for a time, federal copyright laws which cover this issue, gave you the freedom to do just that. Now, that provision of the law has expired, which has left some people petitioning the White House to restore it.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Back in 2005, Sina Khanifar left California to go to school in England.

SINA KHANIFAR: I had taken a phone from here in California with me while I was there, and I couldn't use it.

SYDELL: Khanifar couldn't use his Motorola Razr. Remember those? Because 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.

KHANIFAR: And it was great. It was helping me pay my college tuition. I was really happy about the situation. But then I got a cease-and-desist letter from Motorola.

SYDELL: 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 D.C.

EFF staff attorney Mitch Stoltz.

MITCH STOLTZ: The copyright office created a legal shield for people who are unlocking their phones.

SYDELL: But here's the thing about that shield: It 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.

GAYLE OSTERBERG: The evidence showed that the market has changed. A wide variety of new phones that are already available unlocked and cell phone carriers have relaxed their unlocking policies.

SYDELL: 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.

KHANIFAR: And it really does runs counter to sort of your common sense intuition about this kind of thing. Once you bought it you should be able to do what you want with it.

SYDELL: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

SYDELL: Outside an Apple store in San Francisco, there were a lot of iPhone users like Emil Sarkisov, who don't get it.

EMIL SARKISOV: Once my contract is up and I'm not going to give up my phone when I give back the contract, right? I still keep the phone, so why can't I do whatever I want with it?

SYDELL: For people who travel, like Calvin Su, using an American carrier is expensive outside of the U.S. So, Su usually unlocks the phone and connects to a local carrier. Su worries he won't be able to do that anymore.

CALVIN SU: Yeah, usually I travel so it'll bring a negative impact for me though.

SYDELL: 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 itself to change the law.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.