Update: Congress May Re-Legalize Cellphone Unlocking

On March 5, Ron Wyden, a Democratic Senator from Oregon, introduced S. 467, a bill known as the Wireless Device Independence Act which is meant to re-legalize the unlocking of cellphones to connect to alternative network carriers of the consumer’s choosing. This bill came as a very swift response to the recent grandfathering of an exemption the Copyright Office had previously adopted. Since the Digital Millennium Copyright Act on its face makes cellphone unlocking illegal because it involves tinkering with electronic protections of copyrighted materials, the Copyright Office had issued a special exemption covering the unlocking of cellphones for lawful purposes such as connecting to a network carrier. After renewing the exception twice in the past, the Copyright Office chose to not renew it this year which prompted online communities to object.

While the bill has not become law yet, its very introduction is a testament to the power of social activism. An online petition, available on the White House website, against the de-legalization of cellphone unlocking has been collecting signatures ever since the change and is now up to over 114,000 signatories. Indeed, the petition has been up even before the exemption phaseout took effect. Responding to the staggering number of petitioners, the White House seemed to unequivocally agree with them, adding that the Administration “would support a range of approaches to addressing this issue, including narrow legislative fixes in the telecommunications space that make it clear: neither criminal law nor technological locks should prevent consumers from switching carriers when they are no longer bound by a service agreement or other obligation.”

On March 4, the FCC echoed the Administration’s sentiment, issuing a statement of its own in support of the petitioners’ position. A response to the petition and the White House statement from the Library of Congress was issued that same day arguing that while the Copyright Office is open to re-visiting its decision on the matter, it may not propel a permanent exemption to the DMCA.

The Wireless Device Independence Act bill was introduced a couple of days after the White House articulated its support for the petitioners. Read a detailed discussion of the controversy here.