Unlocking Mobile Phones Voted Legal, but Problem Not Solved

A bill making it legal to unlock mobile phones narrowly passed in the House, after language was added to exclude unlocking for "bulk resale." 

The House has approved a bill that will make it legal again for consumers to unlock mobile phones.

H.R. 1123, the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, was voted on 295 to 114 on Feb. 25, "narrowly [achieving] the two-thirds support it needed to pass the House under the expedited procedure," the National Journal reported Feb. 25.

Supporters of the bill, the report added, "had to override last-minute opposition organized by Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo. The Silicon Valley Democrats blasted the bill's author, House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte, for adding a provision ahead of the vote that would keep the ban in place for bulk unlocking."

The amended language had the support of CTIA, the "lobbying association for cell-phone service providers," the report added.

In January 2013, due to a decision around the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), it became illegal in the United States to "unlock" a phone—aka, undo the ties that connect it to a single wireless carrier and enable it to run on other networks. Consumers often unlock a phone before traveling, so as to use a SIM card from a local carrier, while abroad, or to pass along a phone to friends or family, when they're in the market for a new device.

Every three years, the Librarian of Congress can grant an exemption to language in the DMCA stating that no one can "circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work."

Unlike in past years, in 2012 the Librarian didn't grant the exception—a decision that FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai later called a "classic case of the government 'solving' a problem that doesn't exist."

More than 114,000 people signed a petition asking the White House to reverse the decision, and a White House representative responded that the White House agreed that unlocking a phone no longer under a contract shouldn't be illegal.

He added that the White House and Library of Congress agree that the "DMCA exception process is a rigid and imperfect fit for this telecommunications issue" and that the White House looked forward to working with Congress and the wireless and mobile phone industries to "ensure our laws keep pace with changing technology, protect the economic competitiveness that has led to such innovation in this space and offer consumers the flexibility and freedoms they deserve."

H.R. 1123 was a response that followed. Shortly before its vote, however, Goodlatte added language stating that the Act doesn't "permit the unlocking of cell phones for the purpose of bulk resale," which turned off many supporters.

On Feb. 21, public advocacy group Public Knowledge announced that it had withdrawn its support for the bill, which with its new language was no longer effective in scaling back overreaching copyright laws.

Following the vote, Public Knowledge said in a statement that it is "glad" Americans will be able to unlock their phones.

"However, language recently added to the bill could be interpreted to make future unlocking efforts more difficult," it continued. "We're disappointed that the House was unable to reach a compromise that would have prevented such barriers and still met the objectives of helping consumers."

More needs to be done, it added, saying it's "hopeful the bill will be improved in the Senate."

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