Consumers could once again have the right to unlock their cell phones, if a new law goes through.
The "Unlocking Technology Act of 2013," proposed by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), provides that people can tinker with digital locks on software -- the digital rights management technology that prevents people from copying programs -- as long as they aren't doing so in order to infringe copyright.
In other words, consumers could remove digital locks in order to unlock cell phones, because unlocking a cell phone doesn't violate anyone's copyright. Consumers also could circumvent digital locks for other purposes that don't infringe copyright. For instance, the proposal also would allow users to remove digital locks in order to transfer the DVDs they purchased to tablets, according to advocacy group Public Knowledge.
“This new bill would also make it clear that providing devices and services to get around digital locks wouldn't be illegal -- unless those devices or services were intended for copyright infringement,” Public Knowledge vice president of legal affairs Sherwin Siy says in a blog post. “The idea is to make sure that tools that can be used for noninfringing purposes aren't outlawed in an overbroad attempt to prevent illegal copying. ... Tools that let users rip their DVDs, or format-shift their ebooks, shouldn't be illegal just because some bad actors might abuse them.”
The proposal marks a significant change from the current law, which makes it illegal for people to circumvent digital locks, unless they are doing so for a reason that's been okayed by the Librarian of Congress.
In the past, the Librarian of Congress said that unlocking cell phones was a valid reason to circumvent digital locks. But that changed last October, when the Copyright Office reversed course on unlocking. The decision took effect in January.
The new policy led to enough of a public outcry that the Obama administration said it would support a bill that would make unlocking legal in certain circumstances. "If you have paid for your mobile device, and aren't bound by a service agreement or other obligation, you should be able to use it on another network," R. David Edelman, senior advisor for Internet, Innovation & Privacy, wrote in March. “This is particularly important for secondhand or other mobile devices that you might buy or receive as a gift, and want to activate on the wireless network that meets your needs."
Several lawmakers introduced various bills that would legalize cell phone unlocking, but advocates are rallying behind Lofgren's proposal, noting that it's broad enough to apply to a range of activity beyond just unlocking phones. “This proposes more permanent fixes to the copyright laws that carriers exploit to keep people from using their wireless phones and tablets as they choose,” Free Press said in a statement. “Those wireless carriers should not lock customers’ phones in the first place. We look forward to continuing this conversation and working with Congress to ensure that everyone is able to use wireless devices on the networks of their choice.”
Free Press and Public Knowledge have a point: The current anti-circumvention provisions have never made sense, given that they prohibit activity that has nothing to do with copyright infringement. Lofgren's bill could go a long way toward fixing one of the most problematic aspects of the current law.