DCMA Law Makes Unlocking Phones Illegal

Building a Death Star and jailbreaking phones, these are the values of the American people.

A slow grass-roots movement is building against changes to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that makes jailbreaking or unlocking cell phones illegal.  A White House petition reached the 100,000 signature threshold last week and support for the cause is slowly moving into the limelight of mainstream media.

The Copyright Office, a part of the Library of Congress, reversed their decision in the DMCA that originally made it legal to unlock cell phones. When the law was created in 2009, it came with the stipulation that every three years the Copyright Office would review it. At the latest three year review, the Copyright Office deemed it no longer necessary to keep the ability to jailbreak phones legal and gave companies the power to decide when a phone can be unlocked.

lockedphonenewspost2.28The reversal will mostly affect International travelers who would much rather use the local service then pay hefty international charges. Some just want to use their smartphone with any carrier of their choice, but others see a bigger picture of government collaborating with big corporations to take away the rights of Americans. Under the DMCA, when the average consumer buys a cell phone, they are stuck with the company that sold it to them. Activists argue that this means the phone doesn’t really belong to them as they are at the mercy of the carrier’s prices and fees and still have to request that the company unlock the phone after their contract is up.

When the Copyright Office reversed their decision in late 2012, there was a brief “grace period” before the law went into effect. Users who unlocked their phones before January 26 are in the clear from the wrath of their mobile phone carriers.

Of course, the average law-breaker who has the gall to unlock his or her phone shouldn’t expect federal officials at their door for violating copyright law. Large carriers won’t benefit from going after the little guy. Instead they’ll target resellers of unlocked phones and those who profit from selling jailbreak software.

What can Americans do? The online petition passed 100K signatures, which surpassed the number needed for the president to address the issue. (This number was actually an increase from 25,000 due to the sheer number of petitions that were passing that limit.) But as much as President Obama might want the phones of his constituents unlocked, there are too many checks and balances for him to really accomplish anything. He could announce his opposition against the law and ask legislatures to another look at the law, and that’s about it.

Activists are comparing this law to SOPA in that it favors corporations over the American people and the renewal probably isn’t changing anytime soon. It’s important for consumers to decide how much government intervention they want in their purchases. If you’d rather not combine politics with business, this might be the perfect cause to get up-in-arms about.  As we’ve seen in the past, we’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg in technology-focused legislation, as laws enacted now will have a long term effect on future business.

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Amanda Dodge