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Powell: Cell phone unlocking should be legal, just one more reason the DMCA is outdated

Why would a provider prevent customers from unlocking

Why would a provider prevent customers from unlocking their phones? To make sure they keep their customers (and their money), of course. Credit: iStock

You probably didn’t know that the person who decides whether consumers can legally unlock their cell phones is also the nation’s top librarian.

Yes, the Library of Congress has control over certain copyright matters, and this particular issue falls under the institution’s jurisdiction.

That why in a world saturated by rapidly changing digital technology, public policy on the topic has fallen behind.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), passed in 1998--- ages ago during the Clinton administration ---bars phone users from circumventing measures that control access to copyrighted works.

Angry and over-charged cell phone customers are miffed they cannot legally unlock their device, even after their contract has expired.

An unlocked cell phone allows the owner to switch the device to a different carrier. If the device isn’t unlocked, customers must buy a new one to use with the the new provider.

At first, the Library of Congress permitted cell phone unlocking, creating exemption from the DMCA ban in 2006 and 2010.

But the Library of Congress decided to let that exemption expire this January, asserting that cell phone providers should decide themselves whether or not to give customers that flexibility.

Negative reaction to the decision abound, Sina Khanifar, the founder of, launched an online petition to legalize cell phone unlocking, which has garnered over 114,000 digital signatures.

The White House responded to the petition on Monday with a statement of support. 

R. David Edelman, the White House senior adviser for Internet, innovation and privacy, said that legalizing cell phone unlocking was “common sense” and “crucial for protecting consumer choice.”

And it’s true. Why would a provider prevent customers from unlocking their phones? To make sure they keep their customers (and their money), of course. 

And now that several law makers have come forward in support, too, it seems like a call for change will be answered.

But what should really be changed are parts of the DMCA itself. 

Think about how quickly technology advances. It feels like there’s a new iPhone every 6 months. The camera you just bought is old before you even leave the store’s parking lot.

It seems impossible that a policy nearly 15 years old can accurately reflect our needs and rights or that of all the institutions to oversee something of this nature, The Library of Congress is best fit.


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