Saturday, April 14, 2012

Wireless Industry Initiative Takes Aim At Stolen Cellphones

As described in the April 9 Wall Street Journal article "Carriers Band to Fight Cellphone Theft," the wireless industry has committed to establishing a central database of stolen cellphones. According to the WSJ article:

Wireless phones that have been reported stolen to the carrier will be listed in the database using unique serial numbers associated with mobile gadgets. The carriers will block listed phones from accessing carrier networks for voice and data service.

Carriers will roll out their own individual databases within six months. The individual databases will be integrated and centralized over the 12 months thereafter. Smaller, regional wireless carriers are expected to join the database over two years, according to a person familiar with the plan. As part of the agreement, wireless carriers will also roll out initiatives to encourage mobile-phone users to set up passwords on their devices to deter theft.

The wireless industry's initiative was taken at the promptings of the FCC and other government officials. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's remarks provide some additional details. The FCC has also released a Consumer Tip Sheet on how to protect one's self against theft and what to do if one's device has been stolen.

With the rapid growth of feature-rich smartphones, cellphone theft has sharply increased. The wireless industry's initiative is a positive step toward curbing this criminal activity. The FCC and other government officials should be commended for deferring to the wireless industry's lead in address cell phone theft rather than directly imposing regulation. While existing criminal laws against theft are indispensable, wireless providers are in the best position to address matters of technical design and operation that could help inhibit future cellphone theft. As I blogged about in August 2011, the general lesson for wireless policymaking should be to "Address Problems with Wireless Applications, Not Regulations."

In my October 2011 blog post, "New Wireless Industry Alert Standards Stave Off FCC "Bill Shock" Regulation," I raised concerns about how "voluntary" one should regard the wireless industry self-policing regarding overage charges given the FCC leveraging of its consumer protection regulatory power to coax industry action. Fortunately, the FCC's approach to cellphone theft appears to avoid heavy-handedness in prompting the wireless industry to take action. As FSF President Randolph May sized things up in CommDaily on April 11:

I would be troubled if what occurred was the government called together the wireless operators and said, 'These are the four things you must do — or else,'… I don't think that is what occurred here. Also, keep in mind in this instance industry and government are cooperating to take steps to combat criminal activity…We need to re- main alert that the FCC doesn't resort to a modus operandi of 'or else' regulation under the guise of 'voluntary' agreements.