The cellphone unlocking bill is about to become law -- but there's a catch

Long-debated bill to allow unlocking of cellphones is close to approval, but Library of Congress has final say

A bill to restore consumers' rights to unlock their cellphones is one step from becoming law now that it has cleared Congress. But it's at best a stopgap measure, and the Library of Congress still holds the real keys to this kingdom.

S.517, aka the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act," was first put before Congress in 2013 as a response to changes made by the Library of Congress involving DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act ) exemption rules. For various reasons, cellphone unlocking falls under the provisions of the DMCA that cover circumventing copy protection. The Library evaluates those prohibitions every three years, and from 2006 to 2012, the library allowed cellphones to be unlocked from their original provider after the original contract for the device had expired. But in 2012, the Library changed its mind and decided the rule wouldn't apply to new phones purchased after Jan. 26, 2013.

This about-face provoked an uproar and triggered, among other forms of protest, the creation of a petition insisting that the Library of Congress change its mind. As InfoWorld's Galen Gruman explained at the time, among those most inconvenienced were international travelers -- not just businesspeople, but military officers, too -- now faced with major hassles if they planned to use the same cellphone domestically and abroad. The rules also inconvenience those using secondhand smartphones.

The Obama administration has been in favor of allowing unlocking, and the FCC, under the leadership of Chairman Tom Wheeler (of late at the center of the Net neutrality firestorm), pressured the mobile telecom industry to make unlocking less onerous. The industry has somewhat complied via voluntary agreement, but the FCC has been stumping for greater flexibility on the part of the carriers, such as allowing customers to unlock their phones at any time during the contract provided they pay off its terms in full.

Sina Khanifar, the organizer of the petition, says this is a crucial aspect of the debate, one where the carriers will always try to get back as much as possible unless the law steps in. "It's important to note that you may still be contractually not able to unlock your phone," he tells me. "Some carriers include a clause in your service agreement saying that you're not permitted to unlock your device until the contract has expired. But if there's no such clause, you're free to unlock. Which makes sense: You've bought the device, you should be able to do whatever you want with it."

The biggest obstacle remains, the Library of Congress and its periodically revisited rules about DMCA circumvention. Those rules, ironically enough, permit jailbreaking a device -- one of many signs that having phone unlocking governed by DMCA rules is a poor fit at best. The cellphone rule is due for another re-evaluation in 2015, but it could remain as is unless Congress decides once and for all to take cellphone locking out of the Library of Congress's jurisdiction.

This story, "The cellphone unlocking bill is about to become law -- but there's a catch," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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