Librarian of Congress who made phone unlocking illegal retires today

Librarian of Congress James Billington. (credit: Library of Congress)

The Librarian of Congress wields a surprising amount of power over the mobile devices we use every day. Once every three years, the head of the US Library of Congress is responsible for handing out exemptions to the anti-circumvention provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The Librarian of Congress has thus been able to decide whether it’s legal to jailbreak or unlock phones and other devices. Jailbreaking (or “rooting”) provides greater access to the underlying hardware functionality of devices like iPhones and Android phones, letting users install software they otherwise wouldn’t be able to use. Unlocking allows a cellular device to be used with any compatible carrier network, for example to use an AT&T phone on T-Mobile.

James Billington, 86, has been the Librarian of Congress since he was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. Billington is retiring today, and the Obama administration has to find a replacement. Deputy Librarian David Mao will fill the role temporarily until a new librarian is nominated by Obama and confirmed by the Senate.

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