The Best Government Money Can Buy

by Colin Berkshire

I work in Asia where government influence (“bribes”) is exceedingly common. Granted, it is officially illegal, but as a practical matter it is essential.

I remember traveling into Cambodia via rail. At the border crossing there is an immigration office where you apply for and get a visa to enter. The room was packed with backpackers who had obviously been sitting around for a long time. It looked like an ugly, hot, uncomfortable way to waste a day.

There was no queue to turn in visa applications, and I noticed a number of staffers chatting and looking pretty idle behind the glass window. Not being born yesterday my radar went off. Whenever something doesn’t make sense, it is time to do a situation assessment. The scene didn’t compute: Idle staffers and idle travelers. Then, I noticed the “tip” jar in the room with a sign that said “if service was good, contributions welcome.” Curiously, the slot in the top of the jar was so small only a trivially small denomination coin could fit through. There was a single 100 Baht note sitting on top of a few coins. (100 Bath is Thai currency worth about $3.50.) I puzzled, knowing this, too, didn’t make any sense. That banknote couldn’t fit through the slot.

A fellow traveler–a worldly Chinese–grabbed my arm and gently pulled me back from the counter and stepped in. They then pushed the visa applications through the window with a pair of 100 Baht banknotes while saying: “these are for the tip jar. Thank you for the service.” The clerk accepted the  applications, passports, and banknotes.

Five minutes later (perhaps only three minutes) our name was called and the passports were handed back to us with the visas affixed. As we left the packed waiting room we stared back at the helpless, clueless, people waiting for their visa processing. It had cost us $7 to buy back a day of travels. Later, we learned that the rest of those waiting would be promptly issued visas after the last scheduled shuttle bus left in the afternoon.

You see, the jar was the clue. The tip-off was the room full of people and idle government staffers. The declaration of the price was the single 100 Baht bill in the jar which couldn’t admit such a banknote. And, the slot was too small so that the tip would need to be handed in with the passports, rather than dropped into the jar where it might go unnoticed. All of the pieces fit together nicely. As a westerner I am less attuned to picking up these clues whereas my Chinese associate instantly comprehended.

Now, I know that when something doesn’t make sense I should start looking for clues. Systems almost always make sense once you put the clues together.

This brings me to the Library of Congress and their recent decision. In case you hadn’t heard the highlights are:

  • Jailbreaking a phone such as an iPhone is legal. But, jailbreaking a tablet such as an iPad is suddenly illegal. Even though both run IOS.
  • Carrier unlocking telephones without the manufacturer’s approval is and has been legal, but will cease to be legal starting next year.

When I heard this nonsensical decision I thought of Cambodia and started looking for the tip jar clue.

Yes, Jailbreaking has been perfectly legal for many years. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington wrote in his decision in 2010 “Jailbreaking is innocuous at worst and beneficial at best.”

Maria A Pallante, Register of Copyrights, has argued that restricting the jailbreaking of tablets does not “diminish the ability of individuals to use copyrighted works in ways that are not infringing”.  Let me translate that: Under the influence of corporate lobbyists including the Business Software Alliance and “DVD Copy Control Association” and “Advanced Access Content System License Administrator” and “National Telecommunications and Information Administration”

In the end, Maria A. Pallante drove the Library of Congress to reverse itself and to prohibit jailbreaking, unlocking, and a multitude of other consumer-reasonable policies.

I find this decision disheartening. It is so inexplicable that it reminds me of getting a visa in Cambodia. Government decisions almost always make sense when all of the facts are known and understood. I think all that remains is to discover where the tip jar is and how large the bill is that is sitting inside of it.

Increasingly, the government seems to operate for the benefit of large, influential corporations rather than for “we the people.”

I have had jailbroken IOS devices. Truly, I have never use the jailbreak to steal anything. I purchased programs through Cydia that added to and enhanced IOS with features that you could not get from Apple. This recent decision is disheartening.

As for prohibiting the unlocking of phones: This is simply a continuation of current US policy to make it as expensive and difficult as possible for American companies to do global trade.

I know of many American entrepreneurs that want very, very much to export products outside of the US. But regulations are so burdensome that they just cannot make it happen. If you wonder why our balance of trade is so out-of-whack then consider that the problem just might be that American businesses can’t export American made products.

I certainly can understand that the anti-unlocking is an impediment to exporting American products when you cannot even bring your iPhone overseas and use it. When I am in China, or Vietnam, or Hong Kong, or Cambodia or Thailand or any country I just pop in a local SIM card and have local service. This is great for international trade because I have a local number wherever I go. You see, somebody in Vietnam isn’t going to call the United States long distance so that I can pay $2.49 a minute to receive their call for a dinner appointment.

With unlocking I can conduct international business. Without unlocking I am just a “stupid, difficult to deal with American.”

Meanwhile, selling a locked telephone in Hong Kong is absolutely illegal. And, a Hong Konger can thus travel to any country (such as the US) and pop in a SIM and do business. They are light-years ahead of us when it comes to global business.

America isn’t getting clobbered in the global economy by cheap Chinese labor. We are getting clobbered by our own government.