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Unlocking Technology Act plans to let freedom ring for devices

Bipartisan legislation submitted to the House

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A bill introduced by four members of the US House of Representatives would lay down in statute the right of people to tinker with the hardware and software of any smartphone, tablet, or other device they own.

If enacted, the Unlocking Technology Act of 2013 would ensure that any software and firmware that comes with a device can be modified legally by its owner, so long as they have the device physically (or via an agent) under their control, and have a legitimate contract to use a wireless provider's network – and that it isn't used for piracy.

"This bill reflects the way we use this technology in our everyday lives,” said Congresswoman Lofgren (D-CA), who represents Silicon Valley and San Jose. "Americans should not be subject to fines and criminal liability for merely unlocking devices and media they legally purchased. If consumers are not violating copyright or some other law, there’s little reason to hold back the benefits of unlocking so people can continue using their devices.”

The bill would also enshrine the legal status of distributing software, products, and services for public use to unlock systems, but again this is invalid if it's to "infringe copyright or to facilitate the infringement of a copyright" – a suitably broad term that will have the MPAA's lawyers readying their legal arguments if this gets through.

Lofgren is joined by her Silicon Valley neighbor Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who represents Palo Alto and South San Jose, and fellow Democrat Jared Polis (D-CO), who has centers for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and National Center for Atmospheric Research (NOAA) in his Boulder constituency.

The sole Republican on the team is Thomas Massie (R-KY), a Kentuckian techy who came out against CISPA and is an advocate of industrial hemp production. Before entering politics he was at MIT but left to set up SensAble Technologies with his wife, selling a $20,000 Phantom force-feedback pen that adds 3D touch to tablet use, before selling out and going into politics.

"Everyone should be free to use their personal property as they see fit and choose their preferred technologies without penalty," he said in a statement. "This bill rolls back excessive and out-dated prohibitions on otherwise lawful innovations that promote marketplace competition. I look forward to advancing this bipartisan effort with Reps. Lofgren, Polis, and Eshoo."

The need for such legislation stems from a curious decision in October last year to amend the terms of the DMCA to effectively block the unlocking of devices and jailbreaking tablets, which had been legal since 2010. Unlocking's fine if your network provider says so – but so far their attitude is that they'll agree when your contract's up.

The change, which came into force in January, sparked an online petition to the White House which quickly became one of the first to break the new 100,000 signature limit imposed to stop silliness. The Obama administration responded promptly, coming out for the right to unlock, but saying it couldn’t do anything about it and kicking the ball to Congress.

Taking a bipartisan approach could give the Unlocking Technology Act more chance of getting through a fractious House of Representatives, but there'd still be problem of support in the Senate to overcome. From the text of the bill, this looks like the best bet yet to answer the unlocking question, but with US politics the way it is that's no guarantee of success. ®

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