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Tracfone still suing over unlocked phones

Consumers everywhere rejoiced back in November when it was deemed legal to unlock your cell phone. True, it didn’t make the major breakthrough we were all hoping for — a truly open spectrum — but it was at least a concession that could aid consumers in one way or another. What we didn’t realize, though, was that Tracfone had filed suit against the man who ultimately made the decision, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. The company opined that Mr. Billington did not have the authority to make such an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA).

Well, they’ve dropped the charges against Mr. Billington; it appears that their fears were pretty much unfounded. However, Tracfone wasn’t suing over the fact that any Joe Schmo could unlock his phone. Rather, they were suing because of rogue unlockers, who buy in bulk and sell the phones overseas for a profit. That cuts into Tracfone’s bottom line, as they rely on service from these phones for profit.

It’s like the old pro-gun argument: If you make guns illegal, the criminals will still obtain them. Likewise, Tracfone has realized that even if phone unlocking is placed back under the umbrella of the DCMA, illegal unlocking and selling will still continue. So they’ve decided to focus their efforts on that front.

“We were concerned that the decision was susceptible to an interpretation that would allow criminals to use that exemption as a shield to avoid civil liability,” said James Baldinger, TracFone’s attorney. “Now we’ve been running all over the country, finding these criminals and when we can, suing them. We’ve had tremendous success.”

Tracfone has filed 11 such cases, and has reached settlements in six. Four other cases are settled, pending a judge’s approval. The final one is still pending, but we can safely assume it will as well be settled. According to Baldinger, there will be plenty more of these to come.

This goes a long way in helping explain the Wal Mart incident. They have been selling Tracfones for as long as we can remember, so it would make sense that Tracfone would hand down instructions like limiting purchases to two phones. We just wish Wal Mart would be honest with its employees and customers about this policy.

[Wired]