Double locking of cell phones

Michael Geist has a timely article in the Star today discussing cell phone locking to cellular networks. The current copyright bill (C-32) makes a specific exception within its DRM provisions for allowing subscribers to unlock their cell phones for the purpose of switching network provider. Before Parliament adjourned for the summer, the NDP introduced its private members bill requiring network providers to unlock subscriber phones on demand when their contracts are up.

While the inclusion of DRM within copyright law has questionable validity to begin with, the circumvention exemption in this bill is an improvement over the absence of one in the previous bill (C-61); and the NDP initiative is most welcome despite the fact that being a private members bill, it has little chance of becoming law.

Sadly none of this addresses the other locks that exist on today's cell phones. Those are the locks placed on them by the manufacturers. iPhones are locked by Apple so that they will only run software available through their online market place. Android and Symbian phones are locked to only run software from those providers. These restrictions are used to prevent users from tethering their phone to their computer, using unapproved Internet services, or acquiring software from a source from which the manufacturer doesn't get a cut.

This is a huge network neutrality issue, so it is a little surprising that Geist, as a vocal network neutrality proponent, does not make any effort to address it.

A comparable and very close analogy to this is your personal computer. If you go to Future Shop and buy a new computer, it is not tied to Rogers or Bell for Internet service. You are free to choose your internet provider yourself. An unlocked phone, as Geist and the NDP are advocating, will give you the same freedom of choice with your cell phone provider.

With your PC, you are also free to run any software you choose. From a CD or USB key, downloaded from the Net, or written by your own hand, Microsoft Windows does not prohibit you from running any software at all. You can even remove Windows and install a completely different operating system which may offer you even more freedom. This is the freedom that is missing from the smart phone market.

Not only do we need laws prohibiting the locking of cell phones to specific cellular networks. We need laws prohibiting the locking of cell phones to specific manufactures, allowing them to decide what software will run on your phone or not. Indeed without this prohibition, the first one is sort of useless, as there is nothing stopping the manufacturers from acting like a proxy for the network providers and imposing the same or similar restrictions on your phone that the network providers no longer can.