The House just unanimously voted to make it easier for consumers to take their mobile phone with them when they switch carriers or travel overseas. Because of a quirk in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, "unlocking" cellphones so they can be used on other networks is illegal, as it involves circumventing the technological protections of copyrighted software on the phones.
For years, the government used recurring exemptions to allow consumers to unlock their phones anyway. But in 2012, the government declined to renew the exception -- making cellphone unlocking illegal again.
Consumers were not amused. More than 114,000 of them petitioned the White House to support legalizing cellphone unlocking. The White House agreed and said they would support legislative fixes but needed to respect the regulatory process, which puts the Librarian of Congress in charge of the decision.
Cellphone carriers later agreed to a set of principles for consumer unlocking, but the agreement left the carriers as the gatekeepers of the entire process. By then, momentum was building in Congress for a more straightforward fix. And now, both the Senate and the House have passed a bill that renews the exemption, leaving it just the president's signature away from becoming law.
To Sina Khanifar, the man behind the White House petition and the founder of FixtheDMCA, the move is a significant victory for consumer activism. "It's been really heartening to learn that if you care enough about a particular issue, you can have a real impact on the law," he said. "Though it was pretty frustrating at times, a combination of citizen advocacy and online activism seems to have had had a real, tangible impact."
However, Khanifar also noted that the fix passed by the House on Friday is only temporary -- lasting until the librarian of Congress's next rulemaking session, which is scheduled for 2015.
"With such a strong signal from Congress, it’s very unlikely that the librarian will remove the unlocking exemption," he said. "But the fact that public advocacy organizations have to make a fresh case for an unlocking exemption every three years is a perfect example of why the underlying copyright law, Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, is in dire need of an update."