We are making headway. Several years ago legislators never heard from the small and medium size companies that make up our membership. Things have changed.
A few months ago we met with the US Library of Congress and explained to them how some manufacturers were using software to control the repair, modifications and/or aftermarket of their equipment. In our world we call that software “microcode” or “machine code.”
Well, maybe they heard us. We’ll see this week. In the meantime, please enjoy this news story from Politico that was published today. And please Support us by coming to Austin and Berlin in 2016.
Feds to hand down rules for software tinkering
By Nancy Scola and Alex Byers
10/26/2015 06:33 PM EDT
The Librarian of Congress is poised to issue a sweeping set of new rules this week that will determine how free Americans are to tinker with the technology they own, from cellphones and smart TVs to medical devices and software-equipped cars.
The authority to make such important technology decisions comes from a law passed when Bill Clinton was president. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act made it illegal for consumers to break software protections – but gave the Librarian of Congress, with the guidance of the Copyright Office, the power to grant exemptions to those restrictions every three years. The goal in 1998 was mostly to prevent people from copying music and movies from CDs and DVDs. Now, with powerful electronic devices and systems critical to every facet of Americans’ lives, the stakes for how much control consumers have over the things they buy have skyrocketed.
Technology activists and consumer advocates say there’s no reason an institution like the Library of Congress, acting on a copyright law that dates back to a time when mobile phones were the size of bricks and software-laden vehicles were something out of “Knight Rider,” should control what people can do with their lawfully purchased cellphones, TVs and cars. But the creators of those products and the movies, games and software available on them say more freedom to mess with the systems could promote piracy, and in some cases, undermine safety. Companies as diverse as Google, John Deere and Medtronic have lobbied the feds on the subject this year.
“What this current round of exemptions is driving home is how much has changed,” says Corynne McSherry, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “I don’t think Congress even remotely contemplated that you’d have to go get an exemption from the Librarian of Congress to fix your car.”
The issue has taken on added significance due to recent reports of Volkswagen manipulating its cars’ software to fool emissions tests, with advocates arguing that if researchers had been allowed to tap into the software, they could have spotted the deceptive code. Many groups have been pushing the librarian to open up such car systems to the public, whether that’s so hackers known as “ecomodders” can tweak cars for better gas mileage or security researchers can hunt for weak spots in car-braking systems. General Motors and John Deere are among those raising a red flag, saying that letting the public put their hands on in-car software potentially makes automobiles less safe, not more.
In 2012, during the last round of rulemaking, then-Librarian of Congress James Billington caused a stir when he opted not to re-up an exemption for cellphone unlocking that had been issued twice before. That triggered an online petition on WhiteHouse.gov from people upset that they would no longer be able to change their phone’s operating system to switch from, say, AT&T to T-Mobile.
President Barack Obama ended up championing a bill that permitted cellphone unlocking and it passed Congress last year. That law, however, is sunsetting; in a bid to win passage, its proponents set it to expire at the Librarian’s next round of decisions, so the issue is back in the spotlight. Proponents of unlocking, from Consumers Union to eBay, say it promotes more consumer choice and less electronic waste, since users won’t be tempted to toss their cellphones every time they’re unhappy with their carrier.
Since 2009, the librarian has allowed people to jailbreak their cellphones – that is, to tamper with their software so that they can install unauthorized third-party applications or remove unwanted ones. Look for that exemption to be renewed. But this time the librarian will have to decide whether consumers can also jailbreak or unlock tablets like iPads, Kindle Fires and Galaxy Tabs. Advocates say these wildly popular devices work much like giant smartphones, and should have the same freedoms. Some software manufacturers, though, argue that once you start expanding the definition of unlockable devices, there will soon be few pieces of technology still covered by protections against tampering.
All told, the librarian will make decisions on more than 25 different proposed exemptions this week. They include letting consumers modify video game software to let them play games that require connections to remote servers, even after the video game companies have stopped supporting those games. There are also proposed exemptions for technologies that have barely made it to market, like whether people can tweak 3-D printers to make them more versatile. And some advocates have asked for consumers to be allowed to access the software in medical devices like glucose monitors.
The proposals even touch on education in the digital age. For examples, the feds in 2012 allowed colleges and universities to circumvent software protections on DVDs to use film clips in classes. This time around, groups like the Library Copyright Alliance want to secure a similar exemption for Massive Open Online Courses.
The decisions this time fall to acting Librarian David Mao, working with Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante, after Billington retired in late September after 28 years at the helm. During Billington’s tenure, the Library was criticized for failing to keep pace with modern technology. Obama is right now looking for someone to serve as the country’s 14th Librarian of Congress.
Opponents of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s rules, from both parties, say the current system improperly forces people who want to tinker with their devices to prove why it should be legal – when it should be other way around. Four lawmakers, led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), introduced a bill to change the standard last Congress, but it got no attention from the House panel with control over it.
It’s simple – you should be free to unlock the mobile devices and media you legally purchase,” Lofgren said earlier this year. “It’s time we allow people to permanently use their devices without interference.”