The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act was approved by the House Judiciary Committee yesterday.
But wait: we still aren’t allowed to legally unlock our cellphones (or anything else we own for that matter). The bill now moves on to the House floor, so its fate is still uncertain. Especially because this 113th Congress has passed only 18 bills thus far — making it the least productive Congress since World War II. And the committee proceedings yesterday were, indeed, contentious.
“You are making a lot of people in the industry very uneasy,” said Mel Watt (D-NC), ranking member of the Intellectual Property subcommittee. The “people” that Congressman Watt is referring to are Big Copyright: the movie and music industries. Surprisingly, Watt and the ranking Democratic judiciary committee member, John Conyers (D-MI), were both vocal in their opposition. It’s unfortunate — given their long-standing environmental ties — that Watt and Conyers sided with the copyright lobby over their traditional environmental allies.
Whoa, what? What does the environment have to do with cellphone unlocking? Well, we’re in an interesting moment right now: The convergence of software and hardware has collided intellectual property interests against environmental imperatives. Now that almost everything we make contains software, the same laws that regulate movie piracy are also regulating physical products like cellphones and even cars.
Our ability to reuse and repair our things — and to move from a maker to a fixer culture — is therefore being stifled by overreaching copyright laws.
It’s Basically Copyright vs. The Environment
Entrenched pro-copyright interests are quaking in their (probably copyrighted) boots that any strong unlocking legislation will open the door to common-sense copyright-law reforms. But what manufacturers and Big Copyright don’t want us to know is that their copyright claims also come at the expense of theenvironment.
Well over one billion cellphones are manufactured each year, and the environmental impact of this is not only massive, but substantially underreported. Electronics recyclers have already begun mass-shredding functional phones because they can’t resell them internationally.
Cellphones also come with a huge environmental footprint, requiring supply chain management and resources from every corner of the world. Samsung, for example, recently admitted that the tin in their phones comes from dangerous, illegal, and destructive mines in Indonesia. Most of the energy expended on a cellphone happens during manufacturing — not during use. Making a single cellphone, for example, requires 165 pounds of raw material.
What about recycling locked phones to make new ones, then? Even if that made environmental sense, it’s not possible. Electronics are too complicated to completely recycle: a single cellphone contains 500-1000 components. Currently, recyclers can recover only 48 to 64 percent of the metal in a phone, and recycled plastics can only be used at a lesser quality than before. It’s also not possible yet to recover the politically sensitive, rare-earth elements that are so difficult and expensive to mine.
We are still decades away from developing the technology necessary to manufacture a new cellphone from a recycled cellphone. This is why unlocking is absolutely critical for a sustainable electronics industry: It slows the pathway from cradle to grave. Unlocking keeps existing technologies in service longer, which preserves natural resources and reduces e-waste.
Simply put, the longer a phone circulates on the market, the fewer the phones that need to be manufactured.
An unlocked cellphone doesn’t require replacement every time someone switches carriers. Unlocking also extends the life of a cellphone past the first owner. Currently, 65 percent of all cellphones collected in the U.S. are refurbished or repaired, then resold. The catch is that refurbishers need to unlock cellphones in order to put them back on the market again.
On the surface, cellphone unlocking is deceptively simple. Mobile devices are locked to specific carriers; unlocking makes it possible for a consumer to move devices to a different carrier. But the issue gets complicated fast: Unlocking requires circumventing digital locks designed to protect proprietary software.
Pro-copyright interests have argued that the ban protects intellectual property. But unlocking has nothing to do with copyright. Legal unlocking simply gives consumers the option to go elsewhere, phone in hand, after their contract with the initial carrier is satisfied. When a mobile device is unlocked, digital locks (which digital handcuffs are legal to pick are decided by the Librarian of Congress) are circumvented not to steal intellectual property — but to alter it. No harm, no foul.
As Congressman Chaffetz pointed out yesterday, “There’s a lot of technology out there that doesn’t have content from the music industry.” I agree with Chaffetz: “This has nothing to do with content.”
And so the tide is finally turning. Even AT&T and Verizon’s lobbying group, the CTIA, just came out in favor of unlocking through a letter to the Judiciary Committee.
Over the objections of the pro-copyright factions on the committee yesterday, Bob Goodlatte, R-VA (who sponsored this bill, formally known as H.R. 1123), Zoe Logren (D-CA), and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) moved to strengthen the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act. In the end, the committee accepted amendments that would extend legal protection to the developers of unlocking software and third-party unlockers.
And finally … the Committee members sent the strengthened bill off to the House floor.
Elated by the vote, open access advocacy group Public Knowledge said they were “glad” that the Committee took this step: “We hope that, in the future, this common-sense approach is something that we can rely upon, with a permanent fix to this problem.”
Make no mistake: This is a temporary fix. The Librarian of Congress will have to review unlocking again in three years. And it’s not yet legal to unlock other mobile devices, like tablets (to be ruled on this year). Still, yesterday’s vote was a small, but important, step in the right direction.
We can’t let the 113th Congress sacrifice this opportunity at the altar of Big Copyright. It’s bad enough that Congress time and again fails to display any understanding of 21st century technology. But with American jobs, environmental sustainability, and practical reforms hanging in the balance, there’s just too much at stake.
Because the issue is about much more than just unlocking our phones. It’s a form of resistance against copyright interests that consistently trample owner’s rights for their own benefit.
And the bill paves the way for a future where technology is a more environmentally sustainable part of our lives. So it’s time to stop the political hand-wringing and uninformed bickering. Congress, it’s time to get something done.
This article also ran with Wired.