The last few years have not been good for technological freedom. The last decade has not been good for technological freedom. Going back to the chaos that has ensued from some ill-advised sections of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, the various manifestations of DRM (Digital Rights Management) software — none of which worked to prevent illegal copying but worked well to cripple legitimate software and devices — from the grotesquely punitive media company lawsuits against teenagers for minor file-sharing only because they were easy targets, and the abolition of online privacy, to the more recent absurd proposals for monitoring and regulating ISP’s, legislators, media, and communication companies have been heavy-handed, clumsy, and clueless in getting a handle on the tech world.
Are you reading this on your cell phone? If so, remember this name – James H. Billington. He gets to tell you how you can use your cell phone. He decides if you go to jail for unlocking your cell phone. Cell phones in the US are generally “locked,” meaning they contain codes that allow them to only work with one carrier. When your Verizon plan expires, the cell phone you purchased cannot be switched to an AT&T plan and vice versa. The lock system means that you only think it is your phone. It really belongs to the phone company forever. Even such modest proposals as “automatically unlock the phone when the contract is up” have gone down in flames.
In most of the world, cell phones are unlocked. The cell phone operates from a sim card that identifies you to the network. The sim card can be switched from phone to phone at any time. The only thing the phone company sells you is network time, and the network time you have already bought stays coded on your sim card when you change phones. You can buy cell phones from the phone company, but you can also buy them in stores, the guy on the street corner, or your friend. The device is yours and you use it the way you want.
Oh, yeah — James Billington! He’s the Librarian of Congress. As such, he is the ultimate authority over copyright in the nation. The phone companies claim copyright on the codes and software that lock a device to their system. Before January 26, an exemption to the software “cracking” prohibitions in the DMCA allowed you to legally unlock your cell phone. After January 26, doing so would put you in the same company as hackers and crackers with the same severe penalties hanging over your head. There is a petition on whitehouse.gov to roll back the legislation to allow legal unlocking again, but James Billington, as the one who gets to decide this question, is reluctant to do so and is leaning heavily in favor of the phone companies. This is also putting him at odds with the White House, which favors allowing legal unlocking.
Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. There hasn’t been any sane technology legislation for a long time.
Video: Washington Notebook with Congressman Camp and special guest James Billington, Librarian of Congress (December 26, 2011).