One of the most controversial topics last year is the 2012 Library of Congress decision that made cellphone unlocking a violation of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. A new bill that has been passed by the US House of Representatives called the “Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act” makes it legal for consumers to unlock their devices.
Unlocking a cellphone used to be a fairly normal process that wireless carriers did once the customer’s contract has expired. When the DMCA ruling kicked in it became illegal and this caused quite a stir in the wireless community. More than 100,000 people signed an online petition asking the Library of Congress to change its stance on unlocking. This petition was even supported by the White House. “The White House agrees with the 114,000 plus of you who believe that consumers should be able to unlock their cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties. In fact, we believe the same principle should also apply to tablets, which are increasingly similar to smartphones.”
The new legislation now allows a consumer to unlock their device allowing them to use it on another carrier. There is however a catch to this new bill. Only individual phone unlocking is allowed while bulk unlocking is still prohibited. The summary of the bill states that “This legislation allows any individual who wishes to unlock their cell phone for personal use to seek help from others without violating anti-circumvention provisions and clarifies that this bill does not permit the unlocking of cell phones for the purpose of bulk resale.”
This clause in the bill has become unpopular to consumer watchdogs. Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group, recently withdrew its support of the bill saying that “language recently added to the bill could be interpreted to make future unlocking efforts more difficult.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has also withdrawn its support of the bill citing two reasons saying that “sends two dangerous signals: (1) that Congress is OK with using copyright as an excuse to inhibit certain business models, even if the business isn’t actually infringing anyone’s copyright; and (2) that Congress still doesn’t understand the collateral damage Section 1201 [of the DMCA] is causing. For example, bulk unlocking not only benefits consumers, it’s good for the environment — unlocking allows re-use, and that means less electronic waste.”
The bill is now headed to the Senate where several concerned groups are hoping that changes will be made.