In the past couple weeks, three bills addressing the legality of cell phone unlocking have been introduced in the Senate:
- Sens. Leahy, Grassley, Franken, and Hatch’s “Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act” (S.517)
- Sen. Ron Wyden’s “Wireless Device Independence Act” (S.467)
- Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s “Wireless Consumer Choice Act” (S.481)
This essay will explain how these bills would affect users’ ability to lawfully unlock their cell phones.
If you buy a new cell phone from a U.S. wireless carrier and sign a multi-year service contract, chances are your phone is “locked” to your carrier. This means if you want to switch carriers, you’ll first need to unlock your phone. Your original carrier may well be happy to lend you a helping hand—but, if not, unlocking your phone may violate federal law.
The last few months have seen an explosion of public outcry over this issue, with a recent White House “We the People” petition calling for the legalization of cell phone unlocking garnering over 114,000 signatures—and a favorable response from the Obama administration. The controversy was sparked in October 2012, when a governmental ruling (PDF) announced that unlocking cell phones purchased after January 26, 2013 would violate a 1998 federal law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (the “DMCA”).
Under this law’s “anti-circumvention” provisions (17 U.S.C. §§ 1201-05), it is generally illegal to “circumvent a technological measure” that protects a copyrighted work. Violators are subject to civil penalties and, in serious cases, criminal prosecution.
However, the law includes an escape valve: it empowers the Librarian of Congress, in consultation with the Register of Copyrights, to periodically determine if any users’ “ability to make noninfringing uses . . . of a particular class of copyrighted works” is adversely affected by the DMCA’s prohibition of tools that circumvent access controls. Based on these determinations, the Librarian may promulgate rules exempting categories of circumvention tools from the DMCA’s ban.
One such exemption, originally granted in 2006 and renewed in 2010, permits users to unlock their cell phones without their carrier’s permission. (You may be wondering why phone unlocking is considered an access control circumvention—it’s because unlocking requires the circumvention of limits on user access to a mobile phone’s bootloader or operating system, both of which are usually copyrighted.)
But late last year (2012), when the phone unlocking exemption came up for its triennial review, the landscape had evolved regarding a crucial legal question: do cell phone owners own a copy of the operating system software installed on their phone, or are they merely licensees of the software?