The Right to "Unlock" Will be Legal Again


By Jin Lee

Did you realize that new phones purchased after January 26, 2013 were technically not allowed to be unlocked after the expiration of the contract?  Therefore unlocking your cell phone was an illegal act.  The Library of Congress (“Library”) had made recurring exceptions in 2006, 2009 and 2012 to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which prohibited circumventing technological measures that control access to copyrighted works.  The fundamental issue was that a cellphone could not be unlocked so that it could be used on other networks.  This made the use of your cellphone useless unless you stayed with the same cellphone carrier or if you unlocked the phone illegally.  While cellphone carriers made some concessions to allow unlocking, the industry still governed the conditions to allow unlocking to occur.  This control was not enough to stop consumer activism for more changes.

The decision made by the Library of Congress led to a White House petition that requested the decision to be reversed so that consumers have the right to unlock their devices without fear of facing lawsuits or jail time.  The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act approved by both the Senate and the House were approved this July.  The Act also allows consumers to seek help to unlock their phones, meaning that the not-tech-savvy can authorize others to do the unlocking.  And the Act also instructs the Library of Congress to determine if other wireless devices outside of cellphones should be eligible for unlocking, such as iPads with carrier contracts.

While the reversal of the 2012 ruling made by the Library of Congress is one signature (the President’s) away from giving consumers back the right to unlock their devices, it should be noted that the fix is only temporary until the Library of Congress next rulemaking session, which is scheduled for 2015.  While it is probably doubtful the Library would bypass the exemption again, what it really shows is that the DCMA, approved in 1998, needs to be updated to keep with the ever changing environment.  But once the Act is signed and approved, Happy Unlocking.

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