Chalk one up for the bad guys: Last weekend, the Librarian of Congress handed over much more power to your wireless carrier over your life, your technology and your choices.
Yes, that’s right, the Librarian of Congress…that otherwise benign, somewhat ceremonial position over the Library of Congress…but also, in this case, the Decider over patent law as it relates to consumer rights concerning their mobile devices. That’s because the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) grants the nation’s top librarian power to set rules for how the law will be applied. And last weekend, the LOC ruled against the public interest.
In a major slap in the face for technological accessibility, consumer choice and innovation, Dr. James Billington, the current LOC, just made it illegal (yes! against the law!) to unlock a device that you purchase from a carrier in one of those common 2-year contracts. These are the same, highly-attractive deals that have allowed smartphones to not just flourish, but be within reach of people who otherwise have little access to the Internet. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 38% of black/hispanic Americans, 40% of households making under $35k and 42% of young people, ages 18-29, use a mobile device as their primary means of accessing the Internet.
And if you’re not in one of those groups, you’re probably still impacted since most people opt for the lure of much cheaper smartphones when they sign a 1-2 year contract.
To add insult to injury, a recent piece by Paul Solman on the PBS Newshour, spotlighted the nickel and diming shenanigans that plague every mobile subscriber in the United States…hidden fees that bulk up the carrier’s profits.
All of this is to say that Dr. Billington just did another huge favor for AT&T, Verizon and their lot. And he did a big disservice to the rest of us. The market simply does better when there is abundant choice and openness. Helping the carriers silo off their consumers, limit our options and the applications and operating systems we can use, does nothing good for the public, the economy or the freedom of information, for that matter.
You’d think that Dr. Billington would have been more differential to these considerations given his apparent interest in Russian history, particularly in Russian populism. Just check out the titles of some of his writings:
- “Mikhailovsky and Russian Populism” (1956)
- “Fire in the Minds of Men” (1980)
- Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope, August 1991″ (1992)
Speaking of fire in the minds of men! This guy needs to remember that freedom isn’t something that he just read about in a book. It’s something that shouldn’t be trampled on…something leaders in a democracy (and especially leaders of librarians) need to preserve and protect, especially when it’s given up to such narrow, short-sided interests like a select clutch of communication conglomerates.
More on the story can be read on C|Net. and for a real eye-opener into how the Librarians of Congress have been sticking it to the little guy for the last several years via their DMCA rulings, see these stories from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.