Sen. Patrick Leahy's Cellphone Unlocking Bill Is A Temporary Fix For A Broken DMCA

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Cellphone unlocking has become a top priority in Washington since the White House threw its support behind the movement. Now it's up to senators to pass the legislation required to permanently add an exemption to the DMCA. The latest bill from Sen. Patrick Leahy unfortunately doesn't do that.

On Monday, Leahy introduced the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act to restore the exemption in the DMCA that allows consumers to unlock their cellphone after a contract is up. The Hill predicts that Leahy's bill will be the one to move forward as his committee - the Senate Judiciary Committee - has authority over copyright issues.

“This straightforward restoring bill is about promoting consumer rights,” Leahy said. “When consumers finish the terms of their contract, they should be able to keep their phones and make their own decision about which wireless provider to use.”

The big difference between Leahy's bill and the previous bill introduced last week by Sen. Amy Klobuchar is that Leahy doesn't give any authority to the FCC on the issue of cellphone unlocking. In that sense, Leahy's bill is better as it targets the real issue behind the cellphone unlocking - DMCA hardware circumvention exemptions.

Unfortunately, Leahy's bill would not reform the DMCA to permanently add cellphone unlocking as an exemption. Instead, his bill would add cellphone unlocking back to the exemption list, and order the Librarian of Congress to consider adding tablets to the exemption list as well. In essence, Leahy's bill is a temporary fix for a larger problem, and we would be stuck discussing this same issue three years from now when the Librarian of Congress decides DMCA exemptions.

Fortunately, there's still time to amend Leahy's legislation to make sure cellphone unlocking is afforded a permanent exemption. Even if he isn't calling on the FCC in his legislation, he should at least listen to its recommendation:

"The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), as it pertains to this issue, unnecessarily restricts consumer choice and is a case of the government going too far," FCC commissioner Ajit Pai said. "Fortunately, there’s a simple solution: a permanent exemption from the DMCA for consumers who unlock their mobile devices."