With President Obama's signature last Friday, the Internet-spawned cell phone unlocking bill became law. We did it! Once again, we can take our phones to whichever carrier we want, without fear of prosecution. So how'd it become illegal in the first place?
Well, the legality of phone unlocking fell under the scope of Section 1201 of the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act), which states that "no person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title." Under the DMCA, the Library of Congress (which is in charge of the Copyright Office) was granted the right to give exemptions to Section 1201 every 3 years. Phone unlocking's exemption was renewed in 2006 and 2010, but in 2012 the Library of Congress decided not to extend the exemption.
With phone unlocking rendered illegal, the third-party companies that unlocked cell phones were vulnerable to litigation. You could still unlock your phone, but it was harder to find the people who could do it for you. Doing it yourself was an option, but you ran the risk of "bricking" your phone, or rendering it completely lifeless.
The Internet was having none of it, and submitted a petition to the White House website called "Make Cell Phone Unlocking Legal" that garnered over 100,000 signatures. Legislators agreed with the petition, and began drafting the bill, designated S.517, which was signed into law August 1, 2014.
It's important to remember that this is only a temporary solution. The bill restores the exemption, but it'll come back up for review in just two years. The only real long-term solution would be changes to the DMCA itself, which is at this point so old it's basically a dinosaur. Maybe it's time that lawmakers re-examine the law to bring it into this century.
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