Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Congress' Latest Proposal To Fix Cell Phone Unlocking Problem Flawed, Says Advocate

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, March 12 2013

Congress' latest legal proposal to respond to consumers' frustration with their choices of mobile providers falls short, according to one of the advocates who's been leading the charge on the issue.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.) introduced new legislation Monday that would reverse a Fall 2012 decision by the Library of Congress that once again makes it a criminal offense punishable with steep fines and jail time if smartphone owners unlock their cell phones without the authorization of their cell phone carriers.

The bill would temporarily restore a 2010 exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act created by the Library of Congress rule-making procedure, meaning that cell-phone owners could unlock their cell phones if their contracts have expired, and move to another wireless carrier. It would then again fall to the Register of Copyrights (housed within the Library of Congress) to go through the whole exemption process again in 2015 to determine whether to extend that exemption. Leahy's bill also instructs the Register of Copyrights to revisit the issue of whether to include tablets in the category of devices to be exempted from the unlocking rule within a year of the enactment of the proposed law.

Leahy is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over copyright law. His bill has the support of the committee's top Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and two Republican senators from Utah, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee. Sen. Al Franken, (D-Minn.) is also a co-sponsor.

In a statement to the press, Leahy's office says that the leaders of committee's House counterpart, Reps. Bob Goodlatte, (R-Va.) and John Conyers, (D-Mich.) are also expected to introduce similar legislation.

In its current form, the lawmakers' proposed legislation fails to heed the critiques of legal experts and activists, who have been advocating for deeper structural changes with the goal of removing some of the law's more unusual features and unintended side-effects.

In an e-mail to reporters, Sina Khanifar, a San Francisco entrepreneur who's been advocating an overhaul of digital copyright law, said: "It doesn't address the root of the problem, Section 1201 in any way."

Section 1201 refers to the anti-circumvention section of the law.

Neither the creators of unlocking technologies and tools or individuals should be subject to criminal penalties for unlocking phones and creating software to unlock phones, said Derek Khanna, a former congressional staffer at the House Republican Study Committee.

"In our world, if you break the contract, and your phone provider wants to smack you down for it, they can do that, but the federal government should not be involved in that transaction at all," he said. "To my knowledge, when you violate your mortgage or your lease, those are serious transgressions that go to the courts, but you don’t go to jail. It’s not a criminal felony."

Both Khanna and a broader coalition of digital rights groups are asking members of Congress to enact broader changes, which includes allowing consumers to unlock their phones regardless of contract status, and without having to face criminal penalties. Khanna says he is advocating for a narrower set of changes to the law than the broader group of activists that include the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a group of startup companies.

Senators have introduced at least three bills in the past few days to address the cell-phone unlocking issue. Khanna said that a bill introduced recently by Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden was the best of the lot because it permanently legalizes personal use of unlocking technologies.

Khanna's also looking to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, to introduce legislation that might decriminalize the act of unauthorized unlocking of cell phones.

"I’m not surprised that the primary sponsors of SOPA are again trying to push legislation that will not solve the problem," he said, referring to the Stop Online Piracy Act from 2012. "But just because the SOPA sponsors are pushing it means that it’s the de-facto bill. Those guys were wildly discredited. Having worked on the Hill, I know that they don’t have the last word."

Putting the decision-making process back into the hands of the Register of Copyrights is "crazy" he added.

"The Library of Congress just issued a statement saying: 'We understand that 114,000 of you just signed a petition, but we’ve made our decision,' so why would you possibly allow for them to decide again?" he said. "It’s clearly not listening to what the people wanted, and it’s really a classic story of Congress refusing to do their job. It’s easier for them to pass it off to an unelected bureaucrat than making hard decisions.”

This story has been updated to fix a misattribution. Sina Khanifar sent the e-mail note out about the cell-phone unlocking legislation and how it relates to Section 1201 of the DMCA.

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.


wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.


The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.


tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.


Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.


monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.