How Banning Companies From Unlocking Cell Phones Hurts The Poor

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

The House passed a bill on Tuesday that would allow individuals to “unlock” their cell phones so they can use them on multiple networks, but at the last minute added a provision banning companies from unlocking used phones for bulk resale. As written, the bill could hurt poor people by limiting their access to affordable phones and could even endanger their health.

The bill would repeal a 2012 Library of Congress decision finding that the practice of unlocking phones violates copyright laws — but the repeal would only apply to individuals.

Companies that unlock used phones, however, can make the benefits of a smartphone more accessible to a low-income individual who can’t afford the latest iPhone or Android phone. “Lower income communities are usually priced out of the new phone market,” Eric Harris, an attorney and director of government and international affairs with recycling industry advocacy group ISRI, told ThinkProgress.

Without bulk unlocking, millions of smart phones that lower-income people can pick up for a fraction of the new cost would either be tossed out or shipped overseas to countries where unlocking is legal.

Bulk unlocking is crucial to the recycled and reuse phone industry. It’s a booming market thanks to the increase in smartphone use, and it could end up accounting for nearly 20 percent of all cell phone sales — over 250 million phones. Under the House bill, businesses like ReCellular, which collects and resells used phones, would not be allowed to unlock donated or purchased phones, limiting the chances of selling the phone. So instead of refurbishing a phone for resale, companies will likely throw them away: “It could drive the reuse and repair of these units to scrapping or taking them to end of life prematurely,” Harris said.

Unlocking phones, while potentially hurting major manufacturers like Apple’s bottom line, can extend the life of a phone and keep them out of the landfill for longer. Over a billion phones are manufactured each year in China alone, and most of those along with other electronics — about 2.4 million tons in 2009 — end up in landfills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Only 25 percent of them get recycled.

But recycling locked phones for their parts isn’t a sustainable solution. “We are still decades away from developing the technology necessary to manufacture a new cellphone from a recycled cellphone,” Kyle Wiens, CEO of online repair community iFixit, wrote in Wired. Less than three-fourths of the hundreds of bits that make up a cell phone can be recycled — the rest is e-waste.

Discarding these phones also has grave repercussions for poor communities. Electronics contain many toxic chemicals, such as mercury and lead, which can leach into the ground and waterways when they’re tossed out. A federal investigation determined that prison inmates, used as a cheap labor force to break down e-waste, were dangerously exposed to toxic dust and were “in many cases, trailing heavy metals back to their homes and cellblocks,” further contaminating their communities.

E-waste also poses a harm to poor communities outside the U.S. The waste often ends up in impoverished countries such as India and Ghana, where children build mountains out of old electronics and then burn them to reveal precious metals, such as copper, that they can resell for a few dollars. But burning also releases the phone’s toxic chemicals — cadmium, arsenic and lead — into the air. Breathing in the waste can cause neurological damage and developmental problems in children, according to the World Health Organization.