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Unlocking smartphones becomes illegal kinda, sorta and not for Ting customers

As of tomorrow, Saturday Jan 26, 2013, it becomes illegal under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) to unlock a smartphone. Sort of. What does that mean for Ting customers?

The short answer is nothing, really. It’s up to carriers to decide whether they want to use this new law as leverage. We don’t and won’t. Given that we don’t (and again won’t) deal in contracts or lock phones to Ting, we have no need to.

A quick analogy: If you come to my house and take my car without my knowledge, that’s called grand theft auto. If you come to my house and I give you the keys so you can take my car for a spin, that’s called… me lending you my car.

In either case, you’ve got my car (a super sweet 1997 Ford Escort wagon. If it doesn’t start on the first try, pump the gas pedal) the only difference is how I respond. In the first scenario, I’m pretty upset and the law gets involved. In the second scenario, I invite you in upon your return.

The act of unlocking a phone isn’t illegal; forward-thinking carriers will still give you the master subsidy lock (MSL) code if you’re not under contract. Maybe even if you are. What’s illegal is circumventing protections against unlocking. In effect, customers of the major mobile carriers can still unlock their phones, but they’ll need their carrier’s express permission to do so.

Unlocked phones will not disappear. In fact, this law might just serve to get people thinking about what a locked phone and the onerous contract that comes with it really means.

That’s a good thing.

Will this law affect “bring your device to Ting?”

We were able to launch bring your device to Ting because our partner is enlightened enough and committed enough to its MVNOs to help us initiate the program. It’s clear that they are comfortable with what we are doing.

There will be no effect on you being able to bring an eligible, inactive device to Ting. Devices can still be unlocked, brought over and activated on Ting. The previous caveats still apply: The device can’t be under contract and it must be included in the device whitelist.

Why make it law?

This law seems to have been put in place to put the kibosh on businesses built on unlocking phones without the carrier’s permission. Today, these businesses operate in a grey area. Tomorrow, it’s black and white.

That said, it could all be moot anyway, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) questions whether the DMCA even has the right to enact this law.

We understand the concept behind locked phones and if a person chooses to go with a subsidized device and sign a contract as a result, that person should honor the terms of the contract they signed… and hopefully learn the lesson that unlocked and unsubsidized is the way to go in the future.

This law seems unnecessary given the protections the major carriers reserve for themselves in their contract terms; the prohibition on unlocking is already written into the terms of the contract a customer signs in exchange for a “$0” or heavily subsidized phone.

We hope this law is not the narrow end of a wedge that carriers would use to keep phones locked to their network even if they were purchased outright or after the two year contract has been fulfilled…

Or maybe we don’t? Perhaps the more big mobile companies poke and prod at the sleeping bear that is their customer base, the more that customer base will wake up and begin to ask questions. Questions like “I’m paying you. Why do you have all the power in this relationship?”

That would be a good thing for people like us who give the customer the power and who offer choice, clarity and transparency.

Hey, this is the Ting blog. We can indulge in a little self promotion if we want to.

What do you think of this new unlocking lockdown? Does it affect you? Let us know in the comments below.