“Jailbreakers” beware: if you unlock your new smartphone, allowing it to operate on different cellular networks, you might need to be broken out of jail yourself.
So says a new decree from the Librarian of Congress, who has broad and sweeping authority to enforce the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA. According to an article from the Atlantic Monthly, jailbreaking your smartphone could now land first-time delinquents in jail for five years or result in a half a million dollar fine. Or both.
Copyright law has a long history in the United States, where protecting intellectual property encouraged innovation and fiscally rewarded entrepreneurs with a monopoly on their new discoveries. Protecting new breakthroughs helped lead America to the forefront of artistic and technological progress.
That makes it all the more ironic that these days the government uses copyright laws to constrain innovation, especially on modernity’s greatest source of intellectual progress: the Internet.
Just ask Aaron Swartz, the wunderkind behind a surprising amount of what constitutes our Internet today. Well, actually you can’t — he killed himself while he was awaiting trial for 13 federal felony charges over allegedly downloading too many scholarly articles from JSTOR, a scholarly journal database. The Rolling Stone reports that he could have faced up to 50 years in prison and untold fines, ostensibly for reading too much.
The Swartz case exemplifies one of many problems with the current iteration of copyright laws here in the Land of the Free, namely the great discretion left to government agencies and prosecutors in charging and doling out punishments for violating intellectual property laws, many of which were written at a time when four-function calculators took up an entire floor of an office building.
Why was Swartz targeted? JSTOR made it clear that they had no intentions of bringing charges against the late Internet pioneer. Was it because his plan to freely distribute research to anyone who wanted to read it presented the possibility for a lucrative criminal enterprise? Or could it have been his involvement with Internet “hacktivist” groups and organizations like Wikileaks, who have the gall to believe people have the right to know just what it is their government is up to?