Cell Phone Unlocking Bill Gets Consumer-Friendly Rewrite

The House Judiciary Committee recently took up a bill that would make clear that consumers have the right to unlock their cell phones. Today, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) proposed to amend the bill by providing that people (or companies) can help consumers to unlock their phones.

That change is significant because the original proposal appeared to apply only when consumers locked their mobile phones personally. For that reason, advocacy group Public Knowledge praises the proposed amendment as a “step in the right direction.”

But the group points out that the bill remains flawed. The major problem: It will sunset in 2015, when the Librarian of Congress is slated to revisit cell-phone unlocking.

Unlocking cell phones allows them to be used on any compatible network, not simply the network the phone was originally bundled with. People who purchase used phones, or who travel abroad, often want to unlock the devices.

At present, consumers who unlock phones must tinker with the digital rights management software that comes with the devices. The problem is that circumventing that type of software potentially is criminal, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Every three years, the Librarian of Congress issues exceptions to the anti-circumvention provisions that forbid removing digital locks. In the past, the Copyright Office granted an exemption that allowed people to unlock cell phones. But last year, the authorities decided to allow the exemption to expire. That decision sparked a wave of complaints, prompting the Obama administration to publicly call for a reversal.

But as Public Knowledge and other groups have pointed out, the problems with the current law are far broader than the fact that it bans unlocking cell phones. The DMCA's prohibition on removing digital locks also prevents people from activity like transferring DVDs they have purchased to tablets, even for purely personal use.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) addresses some of those concerns with a sweeping proposal to make clear that consumers can remove digital locks, provided that the consumers don't then infringe copyright. Public Knowledge (and other digital rights groups) say that Lofgren's bill offers a better long-term solution to problems with the current law.

Whether that bill moves forward or not, the amendment proposed today by Goodlatte is just common sense: The right to unlock a cell phone shouldn't hinge on a consumer's technological expertise.

Next story loading loading..