Senate passes phone unlocking bill

Senate passes phone unlocking bill

By Bobby Elliott, E-Scrap News

July 31, 2014

Lawmakers have passed legislation that reverses a 2012 ruling that banned bulk unlockings of used cell phones.

After passing through the Senate on July 15, the House of Representatives quickly moved to reconcile and pass a revised version of the ‘‘Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act" on July 25. The final version of the bill, which is expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama, allows consumers to unlock their phones as well as bulk unlockings — a key provision that was left out of the Senate version of the bill.

"We are very pleased that the legal right for recyclers and refurbishers to bulk unlock cell phones has been restored," said Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) President Robin Wiener in a press release welcoming the legislation. "Copyright law should not stand in the way of advances in the legitimate reuse of cell phones and tablets or prevent innovations and competitive uses for such devices."

An October 2012 ruling by the Librarian of Congress made unlocking cellphones illegal for consumers and bulk resellers, effectively sending the burgeoning mobile phone reuse and recycling industry into a tailspin. Without the ability to unlock used phones, companies struggled to cost-effectively resell them overseas, where demand is high but only for sanitized, "unlocked" devices.

The change, according to Kyle Wiens, iFixit's founder, forced larger repair and reuse firms to send devices overseas, where bulk unlockings were legal but where costs were likely higher.

The bill passed by Congress effectively ends a year and a half of debate and industry back-and-forth on how to upend the Librarian of Congress' decision.

Jot Carpenter, who represents the wireless industry through the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) and had opposed the provision allowing bulk unlockings, responded to the news with lukewarm acceptance, calling to mind the voluntary efforts of the wireless industry to support consumer unlockings.

"Today’s action by the House moves us closer to alleviating any confusion stemming from the Copyright Office’s 2012 decision and we await the President’s signature on the bill to compete this process," Carpenter writes in his statement. "At the same time, it is important to note that CTIA’s members already committed to a set of voluntary principles that enable consumers interested in unlocking their devices to do so."

Nothing, however, is necessarily set in stone. The Librarian of Congress will again review in 2015 whether unlocking devices is permissible under Section 1201 of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. That section, Wiens stressed, is what needs to be rewritten in order to avoid further question marks surrounding unlockings of phones, tablets and other electronic devices.

"The fundamental issue is that the copyright law is throwing up all kinds of barriers to reuse and recycling and so until the underlying law gets changed we're going to see issues like cellphone unlocking come up again and again," Wiens stated.

Section 1201's original intention was to curb the pirating of DVDs by making it illegal to circumvent the technological protection mechanisms of devices — a standing that, in the eyes of Wiens and others, has become too far-reaching in influence.

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