A Senate bill to reverse a Library of Congress decision and make unlocking your cellphone legal again has passed the Judiciary Committee.
In January of last year, unlocking new cellphones became illegal via a decision from the Library of Congress. In short, they reversed their decision to exempt cellphone unlocking from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (by opting not to renew the exemption). It’s still legal to unlock phones purchased before January 26th, 2013, but doing so on any device purchased after that cutoff mean you could run afoul of the DMCA.
Quickly after, a petition on the White House's We The People site garnered 114,000 signatures. It demanded a simple task of the administration: Make Unlocking Cellphones Legal.
The White House responded – emphatically.
“The White House agrees with the 114,000+ of you who believe that consumers should be able to unlock their cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties,” said Senior Advisor for Internet, Innovation, & Privacy David Edelman. “In fact, we believe the same principle should also apply to tablets, which are increasingly similar to smart phones. And 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. It’s common sense, crucial for protecting consumer choice, and important for ensuring we continue to have the vibrant, competitive wireless market that delivers innovative products and solid service to meet consumers’ needs.”
All that was left to make it happen was for Congress to act. Senator Patrick Leahy authored the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, and it got a companion bill in the House. The House measure was passed in February and now the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved Leahy's bill.
“Consumers should be able to use their existing cell phones when they move their service to a new wireless provider. I have worked for months with Ranking Member Grassley, Chairman Goodlatte and House members, consumer advocates and wireless providers to ensure we enact common sense legislation that puts consumers first by allowing them to ‘unlock’ their cell phones,” Leahy said. “With today’s strong bipartisan vote in the Judiciary Committee, I hope the full Senate can soon take up this important legislation that supports consumer rights.”
The act also urges the Library of Congress to take another look at tablets and other wireless devices to determine if they should also get an exemption from the DMCA. It also "ensures that consumers who lack the technological savvy to unlock their phones themselves can authorize others to do the unlocking for them."
The bill technically only restores the exemption to the DMCA that allows consumers to unlock their cellphones and change wireless providers when their contracts expire. It's not a permanent solution to a bigger problem – the DMCA itself.