House Follows Senate in Approval of Cell Phone Unlocking Bill

The House and Senate unanimously voted to make it legal for Americans to unlock phones they own. Tablets may be next.

unlocking mobile devices

The House, on July 25, unanimously approved the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, following a vote of approval by the full Senate on July 15. The bill, now headed for the president's desk, will make it legal for consumers to "unlock" phones they own and use the devices on their wireless carrier of choice.

"The bill Congress passed today is another step toward giving ordinary Americans more flexibility and choice, so that they can find a cell phone carrier that meets their needs and their budget," President Obama said in a statement, applauding the members of Congress.

Consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge also applauded the bill and those who shepherded it.

"Not only will this legislation deliver on consumers' expectations that they can use devices they own the way they see fit, but it will have other positive effects as well," said Public Knowledge staff attorney Laura Moy. "It will make it easier for consumers to switch from one provider to another, improving competition in the wireless market; it will improve the availability of free and low-cost secondhand phones for consumers who cannot afford to purchase new devices; and it will keep millions of devices out of landfills."

Digital Millennium Copyright Act

The need for the measure followed the most recent three-year renewal of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). While in past years the Library of Congress has voted to grant an exception, regarding cell phone unlocking, around the DMCA's rules about circumventing technological measures, in 2012, the Librarian decided not to recognize the exemption, and it became illegal for consumers to unlock their phones—even after the consumer had honored and been released from the service contract.

In early 2013, a petition on exceeded the 100,000 signatures required for the White House to address a matter, and R. David Edelman, a senior advisor for the Internet, came out on the side of the petitioners.

"It's common sense, crucial for protecting consumer choice and important for ensuring we continue to have the vibrant, competitive wireless market that delivers innovative products and solid service to meet consumers' needs," he said.

A bill was proposed, but later amended to add details excluding the unlocking of multiple devices—a move meant to curtail the resale of phones by businesses, and that caused Public Knowledge to drop its full support.

"A bill designed to scale back overreaching copyright laws should not also endorse an overreach of copyright law," said a frustrated Sherwin Siy, vice president of legal affairs at Public Knowledge, in a Feb. 21 statement.

S.517, the bill approved July 25, states that it takes a "narrow, targeted approach to protect consumer choice and promote competition in the wireless industry."

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who wrote the bill with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), celebrated the passing of the bill in a statement, and said that its passing, and the public response to the matter, should direct the Librarian of Congress "to consider whether other wireless devices, like tablets, should be eligible for unlocking."

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