If you buy something – you own it, right? You can repaint your house in any color you like; you can fit eighteen-inch rims on your Fiat Punto; you can use your CD’s as frisbees in the summer and as ice-scrapers during the winter? Well, no, when your stuff is digital, it appears that your stuff is no longer yours.

The right to ownership, access to a secondary commodity market and universal Internet access: they’re all different sides of the same coin. But if the corporations are left to their own devices, all three might not be in our future anytime soon.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that the American Digital Millennium Copyright Act is once again being used to control what people do with stuff that is legally theirs. This is not really news, but has been done lots of times before. This time around, they want to block people from unlocking their cellphones in order to use a different provider. The rationale here is that the phone company need the user to stay within the network to cover the cost of the subsidized handsets.

Let’s investigate why this behavior is a dangerous when seen through the perspective of consumers.

First of all, the right of ownership. If you own it, you must be allowed to do whatever you like with what is yours – if you can’t, its not ownership, but leasing or something else altogether. In the example of the cell phone, this means that you must be free to hack, modify or alter the device, in whatever way you see fit. This includes removing any blocks that are put in there but the operator. Would we accept a fridge that only worked with Nestlé food? Probably not.

Secondly, access to a secondary market. This is really important. If I get bored with my whatever, I must be able to sell it? And the phone, for example, cannot be locked to a particular operator, with no possibility for me to change it. without breaking the law. Also, DRM often limits the right to resale a digital protected file, which is a disaster for many communities, especially in the developing world. For example, libraries can no longer donate used books to other institutions, but will be required to throw them away.

Lately there’s been much discussion about a new threat to cell phone providers – people using open WiFi access points for calling. For example, FON have been getting a whole lot of hype in the last few weeks (mostly because of their recruitment of agenda-setting bloggers, one might argue…). The belief is that handsets will be equipped with dual functionality; use WiFi if its within a hotspot, or fall back to GSM, UMTS, CDMA or whatever low-bandwidth alternative there is when the wireless broadband fail.

The phone companies probably should be scared. A huge source of income is without doubt people in metropolitan cities, exactly those who might get access to WiFi-networks pretty easily.

The problem is that handsets are expensive pieces of equipment, and in order to afford them, most people go for subsidized, branded (and inferior) versions. These are tightly controlled by the operators, who bloat the software with proprietary links and logos to maintain control over the experience. Some phones completely lack the brand name of a traditional manufacturer, such as Sony Ericsson or Nokia, but push only the operators own band. Vodafone is among of the most aggressive operators doing this today. You buy a Vodafone phone – and you get Vodafone service. For life, if they have it their way.

So, consumer behavior has changed, from first finding a cell phone they like and then find a reasonable service for it, to buying everything from the service provider.

Very few people can afford to buy an un-subsidized handset, and considering that it would be outright stupid of operators to subsidize handsets sporting WiFi-capabilities, and thus digging its own grave, I think it is highly unlikely that such offerings will be available anytime soon.

If I, personally, want mobile Internet access through my 3G-phone today, the rate is approximately US$1,20 per megabyte – way too much to do anything useful. In the end, this will lead to a less expansive public Internet, and it will not become a commodity that could serve society.