Rep. Goodlatte Slips Secret Change Into Phone Unlocking Bill That Opens The DMCA Up For Wider Abuse

from the a-big-mistake dept

As you may recall, there's been a ridiculous (on many levels) fight concerning the legality of "unlocking" mobile phones. Let's go through the history first. Because of section 1201 of the DMCA, the "anti-circumvention" provision, companies have been abusing copyright law to block all sorts of actions that are totally unrelated to copyright. That's because 1201 makes it illegal to circumvent basically any "technological protection measures." The intent of the copyright maximalists was to use this section to stop people from breaking DRM. However, other companies soon distorted the language to argue that it could be used to block certain actions totally unrelated to copyright law -- such as unlocking garage doors, ink jet cartridges, gaming accessories... and phones. There have been court cases about a number of these issues, with (thankfully) many courts ruling against this kind of abuse, though it still happens.

Separately, every three years, the Librarian of Congress gets to announce "exemptions" to section 1201 where it feels that things are being locked up that shouldn't be. Back in 2006, one of these exemptions involved mobile phone unlocking. Every three years this exemption was modified a bit, but in 2012, for unexplained reasons, the Librarian of Congress dropped that exemption entirely, meaning that starting in late January of 2013, it was possible to interpret the DMCA to mean that phone unlocking was illegal. In response to this there was a major White House petition -- which got over 100,000 signatures, leading the White House to announce (just weeks later) that it thought unlocking should be legal -- though, oddly, it seemed to place the issue with the FCC to fix, rather than recognizing the problem was with current copyright law.

Following this, a slew of new bills were introduced in Congress, many of which attempted to narrowly deal with the specific issue, while leaving the larger issues untouched. Many of these bills were incredibly problematic, though eventually the consensus seemed to get behind one bill before... nothing. Fast forward a year and nothing has changed, though the main bill, supported by Rep. Goodlatte, called the Unlocking Consumer Choice Act, is scheduled to go to a vote on Tuesday. It had gone through the basic markup process and some adjustments had been made to make it a good first step towards fixing problems.

As of last week, a bunch of folks, who were concerned about the issues with unlocking and how Section 1201 was a problem, were supportive of this bill and were expecting to publicly speak out in favor of getting the bill passed. Except... late last week, with no explanation whatsoever, and no consultation with others even though the markup and Judiciary Committee process had already concluded, Rep. Goodlatte slipped into the bill a little poison pill/favor to big phone companies, adding a seemingly innocuous statement as section (c)(2):
No Bulk Unlocking--Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to permit the unlocking of wireless handsets or other wireless devices, for the purpose of bulk resale, or to authorize the Librarian of Congress to authorize circumvention for such purpose under this Act, title 17, United States Code, or any other provision of law.
While this gives Goodlatte and other maximalists some sort of plausible deniability that this bill is making no statement one way or the other on bulk unlocking, it certainly very strongly implies that Congress believes bulk unlocking is, in fact, still illegal. And that's massively problematic on any number of levels, in part suggesting that the unlocker's motives in unlocking has an impact on the determination under Section 1201 as to whether or not it's legal. And that's an entirely subjective distinction when a bill seems to assume motives, which makes an already problematic Section 1201 much more problematic. Without that clause, this seemed like a bill that was making it clear that you can't use the DMCA to interfere with an issue that is clearly unrelated to copyright, such as phone unlocking. But with this clause, it suggests that perhaps the DMCA's anti-circumvention clause can be used for entirely non-copyright issues if someone doesn't like the "motive" behind the unlocker.

Given that, both Public Knowledge and EFF have pulled their support for the bill. As Public Knowledge noted:
"The new language specifically excluding bulk unlocking could indicate that the drafters believe that phone unlocking has something to do with copyright law. This is not a position we support. Even if Congress believes that bulk unlocking is a problem, it's clear that it's not a copyright problem, just as individual unlocking is not a copyright problem. A bill designed to scale back overreaching copyright laws should not also endorse an overreach of copyright law."
EFF made a similar statement:
By expressly excluding [bulk unlocking], this new legislation sends two dangerous signals: (1) that Congress is OK with using copyright as an excuse to inhibit certain business models, even if the business isn’t actually infringing anyone’s copyright; and (2) that Congress still doesn’t understand the collateral damage Section 1201 is causing. For example, bulk unlocking not only benefits consumers, it's good for the environment—unlocking allows re-use, and that means less electronic waste
Two members of Congress who have been closely associated with these issues, Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo, also pulled their support of the bill late Monday as well, expressing their clear outrage at how this change was slipped in after the fact, in a letter sent to their colleagues in the House:
After this bill was marked up and reported out of committee, a new section was added to the bill without notice to or consultation with us....
They furthermore point out that it's ridiculous that Congress is not fixing the broken anti-circumvention parts of the DMCA, and could possibly be strengthening them with this sneaky change of language:
In his concurring opinion in Lexmark v. Static Control Components, Judge Merritt wrote: "We should make clear that in the future companies like Lexmark cannot use the DMCA in conjunction with copyright law to create monopolies of manufactured goods for themselves..." The court's holding prevented Lexmark from using dubious copyright claims and an overboard reading of 17 USC 1201--the same section the Unlocking Consumer Choice Act alters--to prevent third parties from creating competing printer ink cartridges. The issue is similar here.

Congress should work to roll back abusive practices that use copyright law to prevent owners from having control over the devices they lawfully own. What it means to "own" a device that has been purchased is what's at stake here. The new addition to the bill puts the effort to stand up for the property rights of the owners of technology devices at risk.

It is sad that the bipartisan consensus reached during mark-up in the Judiciary committee to improve the law has been destroyed by a secret decision of the majority after the bill was reported out.
Unfortunately, the bill was deemed so uncontroversial that it's been listed on the suspension calendar of the House, which is where non-controversial bills are put to ensure quick passage. That means that, not only did Goodlatte slip in a significant change to this bill that impacts the entire meaning and intent of the bill long after it went through the committee process (and without informing anyone about it), but he also got it put on the list of non-controversial bills to try to have it slip through without anyone even noticing.

Either way, it seems that even if the bill does pass, it won't do anything to fix a very broken part of the DMCA and, in fact, could make it somewhat worse. Politics as usual when it comes to anything having to do with copyright.

Filed Under: anti-circumvention, bob goodlatte, dmca, drm, unlocking


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  1. identicon
    James, 25 Feb 2014 @ 7:11am

    What would help here is ...

    a link to, or even specific mention of, the bill in question.

    I'm pretty comfortable with navigating the complexities of contacting my elected representatives. I'd love to drop mine a line saying they should not support this flawed bill.

    But I'm lazy, and since you've already done all the research in the world, why not put a link to the bill or at least its name/number in the body of the article?

    It appears the bill in question is Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, H.R. 1123. But even the EFF doesn't call out the bill by name, so maybe I've identified the wrong one.

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