U.S. lawmaker introduces bill to legalize cellphone unlocking

The Wireless Device Independence Act would allow consumers to "unlock cell phones for interoperability purposes"

A U.S. senator has proposed a bill that will allow consumers to unlock cellphones for use in other networks, after the administration of President Barack Obama backed over 114,000 petitioners who asked the government to legalize the unlocking of smartphones.

"You bought it, you should be able to use it. My Wireless Device Independence Act ensures you can unlock your device," said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, in a Twitter message on Tuesday.

The proposed "Wireless Device Independence Act of 2013'' aims to amend Section 1201(a)(1)(B) of title 17 of the United States Code which deals with circumvention of copyright protection systems.

It would exclude from the application of a provision relating to circumvention of technological measures persons who use a program, in the form of firmware or software, to enable a wireless telephone handset, or other wireless device that can connect to the Internet, to be connected to a different wireless telecommunications network from that of the operator it was originally acquired from. The user will need to legally own the software program and also be authorized to access the telecommunications network.

Petitioners on the White House forum "We The People" asked the Librarian of Congress to rescind an October, 2012 decision to remove the unlocking of mobile phones from legal exceptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Buyers of smartphones and tablets should be able to unlock their devices "without risking criminal or other penalties," R. David Edelman, White House senior adviser for Internet, innovation and privacy, wrote in response to the petition on Monday.

The Obama administration would support a range of approaches to addressing the issue, including legislation and action by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, he wrote.

The petitioners asked the Obama administration to ask the Librarian of Congress to rescind its decision, and failing that, champion a bill that makes unlocking permanently legal.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said on Monday that the commission was looking into whether his agency, wireless providers, or others should take action to preserve consumers' ability to unlock their mobile phones. "I also encourage Congress to take a close look and consider a legislative solution," he added.

The officials must consider whether the evidence establishes a need for the exemption based on several statutory factors, the Library of Congress said in a statement, apparently passing the decision to change the rules to lawmakers or the administration.

Other lawmakers have also come out in support of changes to the law to make it easier for users to unlock their phones.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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Tags telecommunicationconsumer electronicsLibrary of CongresssmartphoneslegalU.S. Federal Communications Commission

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