The Government Might Want To Legalize Phone Unlocking, But Unfortunately It Signed Away That Right
from the oops dept
We’ve written plenty about the Librarian of Congress’ decision to remove the DMCA anti-circumvention exemption that applied to mobile phone unlocking, along with the White House petition that got over 100,000 votes, and the White House’s quick response to say that it agreed that phone unlocking should be legal. But for reasons that are not at all clear, it seemed to think it was something that could be fixed by telco law, even though it was copyright law that got us into the mess.
Lawyer Jonathan Band, who works for the Association of Research Libraries, has put out a really excellent short legal primer on the issue, which is a highly readable 8 pages, and covers all the necessary details and background, including a few things you probably have not read elsewhere (such as how some court cases had already narrowed the old “exemption” anyway). However, the most interesting part to me is where he talks about how the White House’s position is likely in violation of existing international trade agreements and almost certainly against what the administration itself, via the USTR, is proposing in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) discussions:
The White House position, however, may be inconsistent with the U.S. proposal in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) and existing obligations in the KoreaU.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) and other free trade agreements to which the United States is a party. This demonstrates the danger of including in international agreements rigid provisions that do not accommodate technological development.
KORUS obligates the United States and Korea to adopt provisions concerning the technological protection measures based on section 1201 of the DMCA. Furthermore, KORUS mandates that the parties “confine exceptions and limitations” to the circumvention prohibition to a specific list of exceptions that matches the specific exceptions in the DMCA. Cell phone unlocking, of course, is not on that list. KORUS does allow for administrative procedures like the DMCA’s rule-making to adopt temporary exemptions, but not permanent ones. The challenge before Congress is to devise a permanent exception for cell phone unlocking that does not breach the obligations under KORUS and other similar free trade agreements.
The draft text for TPP is secret, but the U.S. proposal for the IP chapter was leaked two years ago. The leaked proposal contained KORUS’s closed list of exceptions. Because TPP is currently under negotiation, there still is time to make sure that the TPP does not prevent national governments, including the United States, from amending their laws to permit the unlocking of cell phones and other wireless devices.
This is why we find international agreements like ACTA, TPP and now TAFTA so worrisome. Even when they do not directly change the law, they often lock us into bad laws such that we cannot easily fix them. This is one small example, but an important one. Hopefully, the White House and the USTR will (1) release the current negotiating text for the IP chapter on the TPP so that knowledgeable people can go through and it make sure these little “easter eggs” are not present (2) make a clear and definitive statement that it will not agree to any international agreement that would do something as ridiculous as tie Congress’s hands when it comes to allowing people to unlock their mobile phones.