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How Wireless Carriers Make You Trash Your Phone Before It's Really Broken

Science & Tech  (tags: conservation, nature, pollution, Sustainabililty, world, protection, green, rights, safety, society, ethics, freedoms, abuse, americans, world, media, law, government, warning, ethics, abuse, business, consumers, corporate, corruption, economy, finance, m )

- 2035 days ago -
Making it harder to unlock your device works great for phone companies. Not so much for the planet.


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JL A (281)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 9:37 am

Mother Jones
How Wireless Carriers Make You Trash Your Phone Before It's Really Broken
Making it harder to unlock your device works great for phone companies. Not so much for the planet.

By Kiera Butler | Mon Aug. 26, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

Years ago, someone stole my very first cellphone (a flip model with—get this—an antenna) out of my bag on the New York City subway. I despaired. As a grad student, I was chronically broke and couldn't afford a replacement. Luckily, a generous friend gave me an old phone unearthed from his desk drawer. I got a new SIM card, switched it into my friend's handset, and added my contacts. Problem solved.

It wouldn't be so simple these days. In the mid-'90s, wireless companies began to place digital locks on their phones so that consumers couldn't transfer them to a new carrier. It's relatively easy to unlock a phone—you can download the necessary code for a few bucks. But as of January 26 [1], under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [2] (DMCA), you can no longer do this legally. The 1998 law, aimed mostly at curbing digital piracy, also outlawed cellphone unlocking, but the US Copyright Office had always granted an exemption since unlocking phones really has little to do with copyright. The wireless industry didn't like that—it argued that because carriers often subsidize the cost of phones, it's not fair to let customers take their device to a competitor.

The Copyright Office has apparently embraced that argument: This year, for the first time, it denied the usual requests by organizations and individuals to extend the exemption. Consumer advocates are now fuming over what Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties at Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society, calls "a huge and expensive inconvenience."

But there's another reason the unlocking ban is a bad idea: It stifles the secondary phone market—which, of course, is just what phone companies want. "If a person purchases a used handset, they will not be purchasing a subsidized handset from the carrier and signing a two-year contract," explains James Mosieur, director of a reuse charity called the 911 Cell Phone Bank.

If you can't resell your locked phone, then what can you do with it? People keep their phones for an average of only 18 months. And according to the EPA, of the 152 million mobile devices officially discarded by Americans in 2010, just 11 percent were recycled. The rest (not counting the ones languishing in kitchen junk drawers or e-waste warehouses) ended up in landfills, where they can leach hazardous materials, including lead, copper, and flame-retardant chemicals.

The guts of smartphones also contain dozens of elements obtained by environmentally dicey mining and refining processes, including "rare earths" that leave behind radioactive tailings. Kyle Wiens, cofounder of iFixit, the electronics reuse company profiled in our November/December 2012 issue [3], estimates that a billion cellphones are sitting unused in closets and desks around the world. "And that's when it was legal to unlock them. You can imagine that it's only going to get worse."

Representatives from Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint all told me that the ban wouldn't affect their customers, since they are willing to grant exceptions to individuals "in good standing" whose accounts have been open for a few months. "The problem," Mosieur points out, "arises when a device has been obtained legally from its rightful owner through a recycling program, a trade-in program, a neighbor, eBay, Craigslist, etc., and cannot or will not be unlocked by the carrier because the current owner is not the original account holder."

None of the providers I talked to would cough up details about the number of unlocking requests they receive and grant. Nor would they comment on what the unlock ban might mean for organizations that repurpose old phones for sale in the developing world. What would happen, I asked them, if they got a bulk request to unlock thousands or even millions of phones for a good cause? Crickets. The best answer I got was from Verizon's Brenda Raney, who emailed me to say the company doesn't comment on "speculative scenarios."

In March, a coalition that includes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reddit, and the popular website BoingBoing petitioned Congress [4] to permanently exempt cellphones from the DMCA. Legistators from both sides of the aisle have introduced bills and the White House supports the idea. Yet so far none of the legislation has made it out of committee—thanks, no doubt, to the clout of the wireless industry, whose annual revenues of $196 billion dwarf those of agribusiness and auto manufacturing. In 2012, the CTIA, a trade association that lobbies for the major carriers, spent more than $12 million pressing Congress on various issues, while individual carriers and phone manufacturers unleashed well over $30 million. (Backers are most optimistic about a new bill [5] from California Rep. Zoe Lofgren that would address the ban as part of a more significant DMCA fix.)

Wiens of iFixit says industry could take other steps, like putting repair manuals online, to keep phones out of landfill. But lifting the ban is "low-hanging fruit," he adds—especially for pols who wants to please their constituents. "It's amazing how popular these unlocks are."
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Kit B (276)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 9:45 am

It is a great idea, but we still have so much disposable thinking I wonder how many would bother.

Kit B (276)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 9:47 am

About the smart phone, it's really hard to imagine how these companies are absorbing any of the cost. I think that is hog wash.

Tamara Hayes (185)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 10:23 am
Dirty, greedy, lying bastards. That is all I have to say about that. Thanks Judi

PrimaAWAY B (1278)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 10:25 am
I think I'm very lucky I have had my phone since 2004 and it's just a talk and text. I will be upgrading but I will not be able to afford to probably stay who I have been with since the 80's which is verizon.

I really appreciated the post JL! I have been saving all related issues like this for my decision.

PrimaAWAY B (1278)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 10:31 am
I have to say this article and how hard they make it to switch carriers,etc... is absurd since everyone in the world almost has a cell phone .Even the elderly now carry them and are quite tech savvy .

This tells me the prices should actually be a lot lower now that everyone carried one or several cell phones or whatever that uses the different carrier's services.
That's alot more cost BUT so what. MOST have at least one device and plenty of money is made on purchases and more .SO LOWER THE RATES AT LEAST........... QUIT MAKING IT SO IMPOSSIBLE> There's competition which should also mean - lower the prices and make this easier. Stop with all the hidden fees and tricks.

Sheila D (194)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 12:01 pm
It's called Planned Obsolescence and it's been going on for decades. Meaning we have to always be replacing something, not because it breaks down, but because it gets "old". We then have to buy new, since there's very few fix-it people to be found anymore. Who defines old...the manufacturers. Thus, Planned.

JL A (281)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 12:38 pm
The classic book "The Limits of Growth" explained planned obsolescence very completely--you are so right GGma Sheila!

Phil P (94)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 1:08 pm
Many don't know this but if you're w/ AT&T, one can "unlock" say your iPhone after I think 6 months. At least then after your contract is up you can switch to another, cheaper service. All the major carriers are ripoffs.

Past Member (0)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 1:10 pm
We live in a throw away society which is bad for the planet Just more waste to get rid of They should stop this
the companies are to blame If new models for phones were not brought out every 5 mins people would not rush to change them

Robert O (12)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 2:01 pm
Thanks JL.

Roger G (148)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 2:02 pm
noted, thanks

Bob P (394)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 3:30 pm

JL A (281)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 6:47 pm
You are welcome Robert, Roger and Bob.

Jane Williams (165)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 8:43 pm

Phillipa W (199)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 8:58 pm
terms of use can "allow" companies to trash your hardware.
"For instance, Nintendo, after realizing people were installing software to pirate games on the Wii, released an update that would brick the system upon installation. Microsoft, meanwhile, will merely permanently ban your console from connecting to the Internet if it finds any modifications done to the system. Now, not only can you not use any of your multiplayer games or the XBox Live download service (which is most of the machine's functionality these days), but you'll be forced to go around the neighborhood and pay 12-year-old kids to scream racial slurs at you in person.
Read more:

Phillipa W (199)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 8:59 pm
"You'll find almost identical "We can remotely kill your gadget" clauses in everything from e-readers to smartphones to portable gaming systems."

Read more:

JL A (281)
Wednesday August 28, 2013, 9:27 pm
You are welcome Terry. You cannot currently send a star to Terry because you have done so within the last day.

Lily Robinson (2)
Thursday August 29, 2013, 12:04 am
Wow, thanks for sharing

Kerrie G (116)
Thursday August 29, 2013, 4:35 am
Noted, thanks.

JL A (281)
Thursday August 29, 2013, 8:01 am
You are welcome Lily and Kerrie.

. (0)
Thursday August 29, 2013, 10:48 am
I just got a new phone and it had better last me for three years at least. It sits on my desk and is only used for outgoing calls. If you really want to reach me, e-mail me. I'll call you back if it's necessary.

Patricia H. (440)
Thursday August 29, 2013, 11:31 am

reft h (66)
Friday August 30, 2013, 12:50 am
I've had my flip phone for maybe 8 years and it seems to be working fine. No bells and whistles, I really do just use it for emergencies and when I am traveling. Do people really need to have a new phone every year?

Sergio Padilla (65)
Friday August 30, 2013, 6:09 pm

JL A (281)
Friday August 30, 2013, 7:30 pm
You are welcome Sergio

Klaus Peters (14)
Monday September 16, 2013, 7:53 am
My daughter must always have the latest iphone, I do not. So I buy her old phone.

Prija Kul (1)
Saturday October 5, 2013, 2:49 am
I don't think its harder to unlock mobile handsets to use with other phone companies.Unlocking becomes legal now . so, mobile consumers can unlock their device easily from their direct carrier or from any of the online shops like

alicia m (97)
Tuesday October 15, 2013, 11:20 pm
noted, gracias
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