Friday, August 31, 2007

Legal or Not, IPhone Hacks Might Spur Revolution

Jennifer Granick writing in Wired has offered her perpective on the iPhone "hacking" controversy i.e. techies breaking through the proprietary digital locks to enable iPhone owners to use their expensive gadgets with providers other than AT&T.

"The iPhone's fantastic user interface is inspiring another consumer-electronics revolution: making people care about cell-phone unlocking. After my clients' long, successful battle before the U.S. Copyright Office to exempt phone unlocking from the anti-circumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, have iPhone customers won the freedom to tinker with their cool new handsets? The answer, unfortunately, is that we still don't know.

In the past week, New Jersey teenager George Hotz published instructions for unlocking the iPhone. Meanwhile an anonymous group called iPhoneSimFree plans to sell its software-only solution, and a company called UniquePhones is set to sell a remote unlocking service. These offers generated buzz from iPhone owners, who are restricted -- by technological locks built into the GSM-based handset -- to using the AT&T wireless network. On Monday, some buzz circulated from AT&T lawyers trying to shut down the distribution of unlocking software. Does AT&T have a leg to stand on?...

We won an exemption in November of 2006 that allows you to circumvent digital locks (.pdf) in order to access "computer programs in the form of firmware that enable wireless telephone handsets to connect to a wireless telephone communication network, when circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of lawfully connecting to a wireless telephone communication network."

Despite this success, the exemption does not offer blanket protection for phone unlocking, though the practice might be legal for other reasons. The problem is that the exemption protects unlockers, but it doesn't apply to those entities that distribute unlocking tools or provide unlocking services to others."

Ed Felten has some thoughts on the controversy too.

"Can AT&T cook up a legal theory justifying a ban on iPhone unlocking? I’ll leave that question to the lawyers. It seems to me, though, that regardless of what the law does say, it ought to say that iPhone unlocking is fine. For starters, the law should hesitate to micromanage what people do with the devices they own. If you want to run different software on your phone, or if you want to use one cell provider rather than another, why should the government interfere?

I’ll grant that AT&T would prefer that you buy their service. Exxon would prefer that you be required to buy gasoline from them, but the government (rightly) doesn’t try to stop you from filling up elsewhere. The question is not what benefits AT&T or Exxon, but what benefits society as a whole. And the strong presumption is that letting the free market operate — letting customers decide which product to buy — is the best and most efficient policy."

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