We’ve all heard of ridiculous laws in the United States and wondered why they still exist. For instance, in Maine, it’s illegal to have Christmas decorations up after Jan. 14. In North Carolina, Bingo games can’t last more than five hours.
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In Missouri, it’s illegal to drive with an uncaged bear (caged bears are OK). In New Jersey, it is illegal to wear a bulletproof vest while committing a murder (that should make murderers think twice about committing the crime).
In North Dakota, beer and pretzels cannot be served at the same time in any bar or restaurant. In South Carolina, you must be 18 years of age to play a pinball machine.
With Valentine’s Day coming up, chocolate lovers in Idaho will have to keep their expectations limited: In Idaho, it is illegal for a man to give a box of candy weighing more than 50 pounds (is this aimed at solving America’s obesity problem?).
Most of us can laugh off such silliness as these are rarely enforced, or not enforced at all, and don’t apply to most of us. But what about laws being passed now just as ridiculous, and that could end up applying to us all? Our laughs could turn to some frustrating sighs pretty quickly, starting with a law that took effect last Saturday.
As of Jan. 19, if you unlock your cell phone (manually alter it so it will work on a network other than that of the carrier from which you purchased it), you could be breaking the law. It’s no slap on the wrist if you’re prosecuted, either.
The law states:
“BY DECREE OF THE LIBRARIAN OF CONGRESS
IT SHALL HENCEFORCTH BE ORDERED THAT AMERICANS SHALL NOT UNLOCK THEIR OWN SMARTPHONES.
PENALTY: In some situations, first time offenders may be fined up to $500,000, imprisoned for five years, or both. For repeat offenders, the maximum penalty increases to a fine of $1,000,000, imprisonment for up to ten years, or both.”
For those common with the practice this is a devastating blow. Most notably affected is the ability to use your phone overseas with a different carrier to save on exorbitant fees. But it can affect anyone who has purchased a smart phone, period. When you buy from a carrier — like AT&T, Verizon or Sprint — the phone only works on that carrier’s cellular and data network, unless you unlock the phone. Unlocking phones gives users the ability to use their phones on another carrier at their leisure with a new SIM card, or if they want to take their phones to another carrier for service.
This plays out most often with the overseas scenario, as users will simply use their phone with a “pay as you go” carrier instead for the time they are away, but it can also affect your ability to resell your phone to the public, a common practice nowadays with the popularity of eBay and Craigslist. When unlocking was legal, a buyer of a used phone had the freedom to sign up for whatever service he or she preferred. Now, they’ll be regulated solely to whichever carrier the original buyer purchased from.
If you bought a used Honda car, how would you feel if it were illegal to have it serviced by a Chevy-sponsored garage? If you bought a cool Pepsi mug, would it be fair to go to jail for pouring Coca-Cola in it? Sounds ridiculous, right?
The techie community has been up in arms about the law since last week, so much that it is even trying to get the White House involved.
A petition on WhiteHouse.gov called “Make Unlocking Cell Phones Legal” created on Jan. 24 had over 34,000 signatures as of Tuesday morning. Needing 100,000 signatures to prompt an official response from the White House (a threshold that used to be 25,000), the number keeps climbing thanks to social media sites.
Those unfamiliar with the practice of unlocking phones may never know the difference. Why fight for something that doesn’t affect their lives? Because it’s the beginning. It’s another silly law on the books that unfairly attacks our individual rights. We purchased the phones, at which point they became our property. Users aren’t making bombs out of them by unlocking them, they’re making them more personalized to the use they’d prefer. As long as you pay your monthly bill to your carrier (if even under contract), what do they care what you do with your phone otherwise?
Derek Khanna, former staffer for the Republican Study Committee, fiercely opposes the law, and stated it bluntly, calling it “The Most Ridiculous Law of 2013″ in his op-ed piece in The Atlantic:
“If people see this and respond, well no one is really going to get those types of penalties, my response is: Why is that acceptable? While people’s worst fears may be a bit unfounded, why do we accept a system where we allow such discretionary authority? If you or your child were arrested for this, would it comfort you to know that the prosecutor and judge could technically throw the book at you? Would you relax assuming that they probably wouldn’t make an example out of you or your kid? When as a society did we learn to accept the federal government having such Orwellian power? And is this the same country that used jury nullification against laws that it found to be unjust as an additional check upon excessive government power?”
Probably the biggest violation is not even the what or why, but the who. Apparently now a librarian has the power to put us in jail.
“Laws that can place people in jail should be passed by Congress, not by the decree of the Librarian of Congress,” Khanna wrote. “We have no way to hold the Librarian of Congress accountable for wildly unfair laws. There are still plenty of crazy laws passed by elected officials, but at least we can then vote them out of office.”
Patrick Ibarra is managing editor of the Mountain Democrat.