TECH

Happy Jailbreaking, America

The Librarian of Congress made it legal for consumers to unlock their computing devices and run any software they wish.

Last year, Congress passed a bill making it legal for Americans to unlock their cellphones. Now, a new ruling will expand this right to include other smart devices.

In a final rule published in the Federal Register on Oct. 28, the Librarian of Congress has decided that it's not only OK for us to unlock more of our computing devices, enabling them to run on any wireless carrier. We can now jailbreak our smartphones, tablets, smartwatches and even the software built into our cars to run any operating system or applications. For the uninitiated, jailbreaking refers to using software or technical expertise to skirt restrictions on content or software that a manufacturer has placed in a device.

The Librarian also ruled that people should be able to look at software that goes into our cars.

All of that should be music to the ears of gamers, makers, mechanics, engineers and tinkerers around the United States, where companies used the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to pursue legal action when people have opened up their video game consoles or unlocked their phones. 

The Librarian's decision comes at the end of the rule-making process that the U.S. Copyright Office convenes every three years. In it, the federal government considers whether it should grant an exemption to the ban on circumventing digital rights management software enacted in the DMCA.

Every three years, the Electronic Frontier Foundation petitions the Librarian to consider granting more exemptions, addressing the harms that it says have resulted in legitimate, fair uses of copyrighted materials. This time, the EFF won, and won big.

In 2015, the EFF once again brought a petition before the Librarian of Congress to extend more exemptions for devices, and this time, the factors for victory were just right.

First, Congress had specifically directed the Librarian to consider expanding unlocking to any device that receives a wireless signal. 

Second, Volkswagen was recently caught manipulating emissions tests using hidden software code. Despite the objections of automakers, the Librarian will now allow security researchers to inspect and modify car software. 

"We are pleased that analysts will now be able to examine the software in the cars we drive without facing legal threats from car manufacturers, and that the Librarian has acted to promote competition in the vehicle aftermarket and protect the long tradition of vehicle owners tinkering with their cars and tractors," EFF staff attorney Kit Walsh said in a statement.

As a result, mechanics and Americans in their garages will be able to learn more about their vehicles, but not until next fall, when the portion of the final rule relating to cars goes into effect. The EFF was not happy about that bit.

"The year-long delay in implementing the exemptions ... is disappointing and unjustified," said Walsh. "The VW smog tests and a long run of security vulnerabilities have shown researchers and drivers need the exemptions now.”

There's also an Easter egg in this ruling for video gamers: an exemption for people that want to play games that publishers don't support any more. (You still can't legally jailbreak your gaming console, though.) For instance, if you want to modify an old computer game so that it doesn't try to authenticate itself with a server that no longer works, you'll be allowed to do so. Happy retro gaming, folks. 

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