The Battle Over Cellphone Unlocking

In Derek Khanna’s view, the way to build a durable movement to protect the Internet as an innovative ecosystem is to win a series of “small, and highly strategic, affirmative victories.” And he describes the battle over cellphone unlocking as the first potential victory:

On January 26, 2013, it became illegal to unlock new phones. Unlocking is a technique to alter the settings on your phone to let you use it with compatible cellular networks operated by other carriers. Doing so now could place you in legal liability: up to 5 years in jail and a $500,000 fine. This is a violation of our property rights. It makes you wonder: if you can’t alter the settings on your phone, do you even own it?

This is just one clear example of intellectual property laws run amok: the underlying law was created to protect copyright, but it’s being applied in a situation that no legislator expected when they voted for the bill in 1998. It’s a clear example of crony capitalism, where a few companies asked for the law to be changed to their pecuniary benefit—despite the invasion of our property rights, its impact upon consumers, and its impact upon the overall market. The decision created even higher thresholds to entry for new market participants, which hinders competition and leads to less innovation.

So far, Congress has failed to act to reverse this decision. But now, as the issue gains visibility via an online petition, it is at least possible that some action will be taken, provided the “SOPA generation” continues to apply pressure. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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