December 4, 2011

Competition: Working to Keep You Enslaved?

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act was never my favorite legislation. It was the first of a number of moves that threatens the freedom of the end users of intellectual property (by which under many circumstances I refer to those who have paid good money for their real or virtual goods or services) to freely enjoy that which they have purchased. Since the Python world generally prefers not to place onerous licenses on users this isn't generally an issue in my working life, but it affects other aspects of it. Those other aspects are shared with the other millions on the planet who use a smartphone.

For all the brouhaha there's been about occupations this year (and I for one regard them as a welcome sign that Americans have realized that the future of democracy is up to them) the most insidious occupation I can think of is the one organized by wireless telephone carriers against their customers. With the aid of an application called “Carrier IQ” many handsets, supplied with software packages approved by their respective carriers, have been equipped with the provision to spy on the holder.

This issue was brought to mind by the news that the Software Freedom Law Center have filed paperwork with the Library of Congress seeking an exemption to the DMCA allowing smartphone users the full legal right to run any damned software they choose on their handsets, with or without the approval of the carrier (who is naturally in most cases the supplier of the handset).

I’ve not yet heard of any case where Carrier IQ has been deployed to the detriment of the phone’s owner, but I haven't done extensive research in that area. As someone who teaches security I know that a capability, once created, is highly likely to eventually be used, and often for unintended purposes—if only by those whose approach to moral and ethical questions is one of expediency. Thank heavens so few such people exist.*

This raised for me the broader question of why, in a society that lauds the value of competition, are wireless carriers allowed to sell ’phones that are locked to their networks? If the argument is that doing so allows them to use the profits from the handset to subsidize the contract, my answer is thanks very much, I will pay for a handset that I can take to another supplier if they offer better services, and you can reduce the price of my contract since you do not have to subsidize my handset purchase, thank you very much. And I want the best possible price on the ’phone, please, or I'll buy it from Mr. SmallerProfits round the corner.

By all means let the corporate giants carry on doing business as they are, but also please require them to supply unlocked handsets on request. That way I don't have to suffer weeks in Europe where I am forced to use an international roaming plan that charges me a minimum $100 a month on top of my regular service charge for a parsimonious 70 MB of data and something ridiculous for each few measly bits after that. Haven't they heard we live in the information age? Colleagues from other countries simply re-SIM their telephones locally and pay $30 for a card that gives them 2GB of data and 2 calling hours, topped up electronically by credit card.

It causes me to smile sometimes when I hear Americans blindly praising their country for properties it does not possess, or for being best in the world at activities in which they are in fact well down the league table (mathematics and science education being among those activities). To my mind, America is quite admirable enough in reality without the support of false information. I chose to live here, after all. But when I discover that Israel of all countries (and no, we won’t get into that here, thank you) has made it illegal to sell locked handsets, I have to wonder how much that particular legislative concession would cost the cellular companies in the USA and why the move hasn't been emulated here. I am sure the lobbying costs expended against such a change would be formidable. Times are good in the boardrooms right now. As the UK magazine Private Eye says, “treble brandies all round”.

So although I was delighted to see Verizon** issue a categorical statement that none of their devices have ever had Carrier IQ installed, their roaming plan sucks at least as badly as any I have come across. The fact that the charges are so much higher than those of the native carriers smells of anti-competitive practice to me. If competition is so good, why don't they all use handsets that aren't crippled?

So rise up, sisters and brothers, and occupy your handsets. You have nothing to lose but your roaming plans.

* For American readers, this is an irony alert. Or am I being sardonic? The real point is that some people just cannot be trusted. You know who you are.
** The current carrier for both my voice and data cellular services

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