Late last fall, the Library of Congress issued six exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the far-ranging anti-piracy law that governs virtually all modern technologies. Among the exemptions was this: It is perfectly legal to unlock your mobile phone in order to move it to a cellular network of your choice. (See item No. 5 here.)
Consumer advocates hailed the decision. Not only is "cell phone portability" obviously fair, allowing customers to do what they choose with devices they have purchased legally, but it is also inarguably good for the wireless phone business, promoting competition in an industry that regularly scores in the pits for customer satisfaction.
It's not surprising that, a year after the Library of Congress's ruling, wireless companies have not appreciably changed their business models; they still frown on unlocking. But this week something dramatic occurred in the war for consumers' "freedom to tinker." Apple, a company highly regarded by its customers, staked out its position in the fight. The wrong position: Apple adopted a draconian policy against people who dared to do something perfectly legal with their iPhones, and thus came out in support of the wireless industry -- and against its own customers' rights.
On Monday Apple issued a press release warning people who had unlocked their iPhones from AT&T's network that they were in for big trouble. When Apple issued an update for the iPhone, all unlocked phones would become "permanently inoperable," the company said.
It wasn't lying; the update came out on Thursday, and reports from all over suggest that when people synced their unlocked phones to their computers and then installed the new software, their iPhones were rendered unusable.
It is unclear if this was meant to happen. It could be that Apple's unlock was buggy. (Some people who say they didn't hack their phone also report the update causing problems.) Some customers say they've found relief at Apple Stores, where Genius Bar personnel fixed their broken phones; others have had no such luck. Apple has yet to say what, if anything, it will do for people whose unlocked phones were broken by the update.
But it's clear that the company is playing hardball. Even if hackers manage to re-unlock phones now -- which they almost certainly will -- and even if Apple reauthorizes the broken phones, the firm has certainly made its position clear: Don't dare use your phone in a way we don't allow.
Apple is within its rights to do so. Though the Library of Congress made it legal for people to unlock their phones, it didn't prohibit companies from taking measures to prevent unlocking. So Apple's not doing anything illegal -- just profoundly unfair and unfriendly.
It's only in the cellphone business that anyone would tolerate such behavior. If a company tried this in any other industry, people would howl to the heavens. Imagine the outrage if Apple or Microsoft sold desktop PCs that allowed you to connect to the Internet only through Comcast -- and then, if you tried to use Earthlink instead, the company would shut down your machine. Or what if Ford allowed you to drive your new Explorer only to Wal-Mart to buy your groceries; if you went instead to Whole Foods, a company official would come by and slash your tires.
These scenarios sound bizarre. But how is Apple's iPhone policy any different? I understand that it has signed a deal with AT&T -- and, now, several carriers in Europe -- to deliver the iPhone exclusively. I understand it has obligations under those deals. What I'm disappointed by is how far Apple intends to take those contracts -- all the way to breaking people's phones is too, too far.
As I've written before, I consider the iPhone a revolutionary device. The hype was well-deserved; by delivering the Web on the go, the iPhone enhances nearly every aspect of a workaday life.
But Apple has now made it plain that anybody who buys the iPhone is not really buying it. What we're doing instead is more like renting it -- Apple remains your landlord, stern, controlling, and allowed to evict you at will. At whatever price -- $600, $400, $200 -- that's a very high cost to bear. If you care about your rights, don't buy an iPhone.