The legality of certain phone modifications in the United States, particularly those that allow phones to be used on wireless carriers for which they weren't originally intended, is currently on a congressional see-saw. Every three years, the Librarian of Congress has to approve or extend an exemption of the infamous Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to allow or deny consumers the right to unlock (read: carrier unlock, and in some cases rooting/jailbreaking, but not unlocking bootloaders) their phones by circumventing digital rights management. Congress let the exemption slide earlier this year - read the gory details here. Now a new bill has been entered that, if passed, would grant a permanent exemption to the DMCA for carrier unlocking, among other things.
A French image processing company by the name of DxO Labs has filed a DMCA takedown request targeting 12 GitHub repositories containing device-specific code for ROMs, most of them maintained by CyanogenMod team members. The notice is vague, only citing:
 I have a good faith belief that the file downloads identified below (by URL) are unlawful under these copyright laws because among other things, the files circumvent effective access controls and/or copyright protection measures;
Content Type: "Custom Firmware" files
Violation(s): Trafficking a device that circumvents effective access controls and/or trafficking a device that circumvents effective copyright protection measures.
Most of the time, major corporations like to cushion their words so that, in the event of a PR disaster, it's easier to walk back its statements. Today, an AT&T exec in charge of public policy decided to throw that caution to the wind and announce in no uncertain terms 'the Librarian’s ruling will not negatively impact any of AT&T’s customers.' Well. That sure is blunt.
We're not apt to take any AT&T rep at their word, and there are certainly some things to raise eyebrows over. For starters, at one point in the post, the author says the following:
As we make clear on our website, if we have the unlock code or can reasonably get it from the manufacturer, AT&T currently will unlock a device for any customer whose account has been active for at least sixty days; whose account is in good standing and has no unpaid balance; and who has fulfilled his or her service agreement commitment.
Two days ago, the White House announced its support for carrier unlocking handsets. The administration promised an FCC/NTIA investigation as well as a willingness to "work with Congress" on legislation to fix the problem. So, we can probably count on the President's support of the new Wireless Device Independence Act, introduced last night by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). The bill, which is only three pages long, has a simple goal: amend the DMCA such that it explicitly allows the unlocking of cell phones, obviating the need for a tri-yearly exemption.
The following language would be added to the DMCA's section on anti-circumvention policies:
In October of 2012, the Library of Congress elected not to renew DMCA exemptions that explicitly allow end users to unlock their cell phones at will, thus ending a six year tradition. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move. The quest to do something about it began almost immediately. And by "almost immediately" I mean "nearly three months later and at almost the very last minute."
Still, regardless of when the outrage gained steam, the fact is it did. Quite a bit of steam, in fact. Despite the White House raising the bar for online petitions to 100,000 signatures (after the previous bar of 25,000 resulted in an entertaining, if frivolous response about why the President won't build a Death Star), you did it!
At this point, you've probably heard that starting tomorrow, it will become illegal to unlock your smartphone to use it on another carrier. You certainly should have heard so since the decision was made three months ago. That being said, there are still quite a few questions that folks want to have answered. Chief among them, 'How does this affect me?' Well, I'm glad you asked, dear reader.
For a bit of context, first, let's take a look at exactly what has changed. This is not new, sweeping legislation. What happens is that every three years, the Librarian of Congress issues a set of exemptions to the DMCA.
Good news, bad news, and really bloody ridiculous news, Android fans. Today, the latest round of DMCA exemptions has been passed and if you've ever jailbroken or rooted a phone, you'll be happy to know that this will continue to be legal. At least, for your phones. If, however, you want to gain su access to your tablet, you're fresh out of luck. Also, phones purchased after January 2013 cannot be legally unlocked for use on a carrier that didn't give you explicit permission. Yeah, it's kind of a mess.
Wait, What Are DMCA Exemptions?
A brief intro, for the uninitiated: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, signed into law in 1998, has a certain set of rules concerning circumvention of DRM.
This a cause I think we can all get behind. Back in 2010, the Copyright Office in the Library of Congress issued a rulemaking statement exempting smartphones and DVDs from reverse engineering laws under the DMCA. Previously, companies like Apple had used these provisions to threaten criminal prosecution (as well as civil action) against those who "jailbroke" (rooted) devices such as the iPhone (or iPad). The exemption to these penalties put in place by the Copyright Office extended to the "jailbreaking" (or, as we know it in the Android community, rooting) of all smartphones (it also extends to things like bootloader unlocking).
Companies like YouTube and Grooveshark are at the center of the ongoing controversies around online distribution of copyrighted materials. This controversy reared its ugly head earlier this month when the Grooveshark app was removed from the Android Market. While this disappointed many of the users who stream all their favourite tunes without having to posses an actual digital copy, Google was justified in kicking these pseudo-pirates out of the Market, right? Not so, says Grooveshark.
In protest to Google's decision to drop the app, Grooveshark has re-released it to the public. Although the app is still absent from the Market, it has been made available on Grooveshark's mobile website.