Lawmakers Prepare Bills To Legalize Unlocking

by , Mar 6, 2013, 5:53 PM
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The White House on Monday threw its support behind the proposition that consumers should be able to unlock their smartphones without worrying about criminal charges.

Within two days, several lawmakers said they were prepping legislation to that effect. Already Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) unveiled the Wireless Device Independence Act of 2013, which would make clear that consumers can unlock phones in order to switch carriers. Others to voice support for bills to legalize unlocking include Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), according to The Hill.

So far, the lawmakers who are speaking out this week seem focused fairly narrowly on unlocking -- which became illegal in January, thanks to the Librarian of Congress. Every three years, the Librarian of Congress issues exemptions to a section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that makes it illegal to circumvent digital rights management software.

In the past, the officials granted an exemption for purposes of unlocking smartphones. But in October, the U.S. Copyright Office decided not to renew that exemption, rejecting arguments by Consumers Union, MetroPCS and others, who said that allowing people to unlock phones didn't threaten any valid copyright interest.

That decision now is rightfully under fire. But rules prohibiting phone unlocking are just one consequence of the DMCA's problematic anti-circumvention provisions.

As Princeton professor Ed Felten points out, those provisions also threaten academic research. "In 2001," he writes, "our team’s study of CD copy protection technologies could not be published as planned because of DMCA threats from the recording industry -- the same people who had invited us to study the technologies."

Felten adds that research about electronic voting machines led to threats by vendors, who accused the researchers of violating the DMCA.

The anti-circumvention provisions also apply to activity like jailbreaking phones and tablets in order to run unapproved apps on the devices. The Library of Congress granted an exemption for purposes of jailbreaking phones -- but not tablets -- last October.

Felten said in a blog post that the only way to "really fix this mess" is by revising the DMCA.

Today, a host of groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reddit and Mozilla, have started an online campaign to that effect. They launched the site FixTheDMCA.org, aimed at convincing Congress to repeal the anti-circumvention rules that prohibit people from unlocking cell phones, jailbreaking tablets, or backing up their DVDs.

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