Why unlocking cell phones is a green issue

iFixit/CC BY-ND 3.0
People are talking a lot about cell phone unlocking in the news this week. Until recently, unlocking mostly flew under the radar—a common technique used by consumers who need to use their phones with more than one carrier. But late last year the Librarian of Congress banned the practice, catapulting cell phone unlocking into the national spotlight.

Unlocking is a software tweak that disables a device’s SIM lock. So, once the contract is over, owners of unlocked devices can switch to the carrier of their choice. Carriers including AT&T and Verizon argue that unlocking a cell phone without permission is a violation of copyright under the 1998 Digital Millenium Copyright Act—a law originally designed to prevent piracy. For the past three years, cell phone unlocking has been exempted from the DMCA. When the Librarian of Congress lifted the exemption, he made it illegal to unlock a phone.

Immediately after the ban took effect on January 26, the internet lit up in protest. Digital rights activists and personal property proponents mobilized forces, and a petition on We the People—the White House’s official petitioning forum—garnered the support of thousands. Their demand: legalize cell phone unlocking.

On Monday, the fervor prompted a White House response. In no uncertain terms, the administration backed legalizing the unlocking of both cell phones and tablets.

“It's common sense, crucial for protecting consumer choice, and important for ensuring we continue to have the vibrant, competitive wireless market that delivers innovative products and solid service to meet consumers' needs,” wrote R. David Edelson, the White House’s senior advisor on the internet.

And while cell phone unlocking is absolutely an issue of consumer and digital rights, something important has been ignored in this conversation: unlocking also a green issue. 426,000 cell phones are decommissioned every single day in the United States; many of them will end up banished to junk drawers and rotting in landfills. One billion cell phones are sitting idle in drawers and closets, losing value while they are waiting to be put back into service.

Swapping old phones is a common practice; just this week my brother borrowed an old phone from me after his failed. The catch? Swapping only works if you both use the same carrier—an artificial limitation that has created a huge barrier to a sharing economy. Re-legalizing unlocking will keep more devices in service and out of the national waste stream.

Cell phones and the environment

Wireless technology is a big business in the United States. There are more wireless devices in the US than there are people. As of late 2012, Apple had sold more than 85 million iPhones and 34 million iPads. To date, Samsung has produced 800 million mobile phones. Those numbers grow every single day—and that has environmental consequences.

Electronics manufacturing isn’t a clean industry. A single cell phone houses within it over half of the elements on the period table—many of which can’t be recovered in recycling. Pit mining—fueled by the demand for more electronics—is savaging the environment, causing water pollution that leads to birth defects. Conflict minerals, like coltan, are required to make every single cell phone—and warlords use mining profits to fund conflicts that tear apart places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Beyond the harmful effects of conflict minerals, there’s the very real threat of e-waste. Every year, the world tosses out between 20 to 50 million metric tons of electronics—only 18% of which is recycled. As a result, e-waste is piling up in landfills around the world. The more electronics we consume, the worse the problem gets.

How can unlocking help?

The best shot we have of stemming the environmental damage caused by electronics manufacturing is to make our gadgets more reusable. Unlocking is part of that solution. The average cell phone customer changes carriers every 4 years. Locked devices can’t travel from carrier to carrier, so—even if fully functioning—they become obsolete with every carrier switch. It’s all too easy to throw obsolete devices into the trash: only 8 percent of cell phones are recycled.

Reuse is key to extending the life of electronics. Let’s take a lesson from free market economics: the larger the potential market, the more value your product has. While locked phones can only be sold to people who have the same carrier, unlocked phones have a bigger market and hold more value over time, sometimes doubling or tripling the resale value of a device. Moreover, refurbishers need to unlock cell phones in order to sell them to new users. Unlocking means a phone lives beyond the first user to the second, third, and fourth. And the longer electronics stay in service, the less demand there is to manufacture more.

Taking away our right to unlock our phones isn’t about protecting creative work through copyright; it’s about protecting corporate profit at the expense of the consumer and the environment. The White House supports restoring our right to legally unlock our phones and, right now, Congress is listening.

Take action: tell your government officials to Free Our Phones and Fix the DMCA by supporting legislation that would legalize unlocking.

Tags: Cell Phones | Technology

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