Tom Wheeler, the man President Obama has nominated to be the next FCC chairman, has something in common with a lot of Americans. He believes that they have the right to unlock their cell phones after a two-year contract is fulfilled.
During a nomination hearing with the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this week, Wheeler said he fully supports the ability of Americans to unlock their smartphones:
"I am a strong supporter of intellectual property rights. At the same point in time, I believe that when I as a consumer or you as a consumer, or anyone have fulfilled our commitment and we've paid off our contract, that we ought to have the right to use that device and move it across carriers as we see fit. I look forward to working on this issue and resolving this issue to give consumers flexibility."
In the above statement, Wheeler is referring to how the legality of cell phone unlocking is decided by the Librarian of Congress as per the rules set by the DMCA. The law states that the Librarian of Congress shall name exemptions to the anti-circumvention clause. The original intent was to keep consumers from cracking DRM in the name of piracy, but it has been used to prevent consumers from doing as they wish with purchased hardware.
Many proponents of cell phone unlocking have called for an amended DMCA, but some industry players obviously wouldn't want that. As for Wheeler, he seems to be keeping all options on the table. Here's what he said in a statement to Ars Technica:
"I don't know whether it [should be] a permanent exemption [to the DMCA], whether it is a rewrite of the Copyright Act, or what the appropriate solution is, but I do believe there needs to be a solution and consumers should have the right to unlock their phones after they've lived up to their side of the agreement."
Wheeler may not be sure on how to progress yet, but a few lawmakers in Congress have tossed up a few ideas. The first proposal, which is from Sen. Patrick Leahy, calls for cell phone unlocking to be added to the Librarian of Congress' exemption list. It doesn't actually fix any problems though. The fact that it doesn't fix anything may be why the wireless industry is 100 percent behind it. They can be seen as pro-consumer in the short term, but still have the authority to enforce locked cell phones if the Librarian of Congress chooses to remove it from the exemption list in 2016.
The second, and far more preferable, is Rep. Zoe Lofgren's Unlocking Technology Act of 2013. The proposed law would "permanently guarantee consumers can unlock their cell phones, tablets, and other mobile communications devices in order to switch carriers." The bill goes even further by legalizing the sharing of tools necessary to unlock mobile devices.
Unfortunately, it seems that most of the support in Washington is in favor of Leahy's band aid for a bullet wound solution. Wheeler will undoubtedly support it as well considering his close ties to the wireless industry.[Image: The Cable Center]