FCC Chair Nominee Wants to Fully Legalize Phone Unlocking
June 20, 2013 4:14 PM
Tom Wheeler turns against his former employer, the CTIA
Phone unlocking -- defeating OEM and carrier software constraints that prevent users from freely switching between carriers with otherwise compatible devices -- has been a subject of much contention in the U.S. Unlocking was ruled illegal -- unless your carrier allows it -- via the 1998
Digital Millennium Copyright Act
Then in July 2010, the
Library of Congress
ruled on language in the DMCA
as it pertained to cell phones, arguing phone unlocking
. But in an Oct. 2012 re-review, the LoC Librarian
sided with OEMs like Apple
, Inc. (
. For consumers the ruling meant that they could void their warranties if they unlocked. And it also stifled the development of unlocking tools, as participating in such efforts could now earn you fines and/or prison time.
But a fresh push to legalize unlocking is coming from new
U.S. Federal Communications Commission
's nominated chairman Tom Wheeler, who may replace Julius Genachowski,
who in March left the FCC
to serve as a senior fellow at
the Aspen Institute
, a non-profit think-tank.
Mr. Wheeler (seen to the right of President Obama) once worked for the CTIA, who is a top opponent of unlocking. [Image Source: WH.gov]
Who knew the Library of Congress had this far of a reach? I am a strong supporter of intellectual property rights. At the same point in time, I believe that when I as a consumer or you as a consumer, or anyone have fulfilled our commitment and we've paid off our contract, that we ought to have the right to use that device and move it across carriers as we see fit. I look forward to working on this issue and resolving this issue to give consumers flexibility.
I don't know whether it [should be] a permanent exemption [to the DMCA], whether it is a rewrite of the Copyright Act, or what the appropriate solution is, but I do believe there needs to be a solution and consumers should have the right to unlock their phones after they've lived up to their side of the agreement.
His decision to stand up for unlocking is somewhat interesting.
Earlier in his career he served as a lobbyist for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) and the
Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association
(CTIA), as well as being a venture capitalist investing in numerous online/wireless business firms. The CTIA in particular vigorously opposed unlocking,
it "did not meet the burden of proof" to secure a Fair Use exemption to the DMCA.
In other words, Chairman Wheeler has done a 180, going from lobbying for a trade group that was one of unlocking's largest opponents, to heading the federal government's top wireless regulatory agency and championing unlocking.
His comments come at a critical moment -- his nomination hearing before the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate. His nomination is expected to go through, despite some controversy over his remarks which indicated he might have allowed AT&T, Inc. (
Deutsche Telekom AG (
) subsidiary T-Mobile USA, a move which his predecessor Mr. Genachowski
fought to block
. He dismissed
on the topic as "hypothetical speculation".
It is currently illegal to unlock devices like the iPhone. [Image Source: Engadget]
Mr. Wheeler has at least one other supporter in the FCC, regarding his unlocking views.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai
-- a Republican serving on the FCC -- is a vocal advocate of unlocking. While he says it's not the place of the FCC to authorize it, he urged Congress too, calling the ban ridiculous. He remarked in
, "No one seriously believes that unlocking a cellphone to switch carriers is equivalent to piracy."
"Death Is Very Likely The Single Best Invention Of Life" -- Steve Jobs
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