New cellphone-unlocking bill offers narrow fix

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) wants to roll back the Library of Congress’ cellphone unlocking ban, but the bill he introduced Monday in the Senate is a narrow fix that doesn’t affect the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Leahy's Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act would restore the DMCA exemption for cellphone unlocking that the Library of Congress allowed to expire last year. The Library of Congress revisits those exemptions once every three years, so Leahy’s legislation would restore the rule and let the Library consider it again next time around.

"Although Congress has stepped in in this instance to restore an important policy objective, I urge parties in future rulemakings to provide a more full record so that the rulemaking process can proceed as it was designed," Leahy wrote in a release announcing the legislation.

Leahy is not the first member of Congress to move forward with cellphone-unlocking legislation, but his bill has a good chance of getting passed. Leahy wrote the original DMCA law and sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees copyright matters, which gives his bill more weight in the Senate.

Unlocking outrage

Leahy also plans to encourage the Library to expand the unlocking exemption to include tablets. Phones and tablets are typically sold locked to a single carrier under contract. If you want to unlock your device once your contract is up, you can’t—at least not legally.

AT&T earlier this month said it will unlock customers' devices once their contracts are up if it can find the unlock code and if the user account is active and in good standing.

The unlocking ban inspired outrage when it took effect in January, but it took a citizen petition and the White House’s opposition to the ban to get the legislative ball rolling.

Still, the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act likely falls short for many of the activists who have called for reversing the ban. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and petition organizer Sina Khanifar are behind a campaign to "Fix the DMCA," which would remove the section of that law that outlaws "circumvention of copyright-protection systems." According to the DMCA, device unlocking attempts to circumvent those systems, as does audio technology that reads e-books aloud to blind people.

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