Senate Votes To Allow Cell-Phone Unlocking

The Senate unanimously voted on Tuesday to allow consumers to unlock their cell phones so they can use the devices with a variety of carriers.

The “Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act” (S. 517) makes clear that tinkering with digital rights management software in order to unlock a phone doesn't violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. That law makes it a crime to circumvent digital locks.

Every three years, the U.S. Copyright Office issues exceptions to the rules against circumvention. Until January of 2013, the authorities made an exception for cell-phone unlocking. But the Copyright Office recently reversed course, effectively making it illegal for consumers to unlock their cell phones.

The Copyright Office's move proved unpopular with consumer groups, as well as the Obama administration, which took the position that people should be able to unlock phones without running the risk of a criminal prosecution.

Late last year, faced with pressure by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, the wireless companies agreed to follow a self-regulatory code that allows consumers to unlock their phones after their contracts expire.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed legislation to allow consumers to unlock their phones. But that bill, unlike the one approved this week by the Senate, wouldn't allow "bulk unlocking" by companies. The House and Senate still need to resolve the differences in the bills.

News of the Senate's vote was cheered by digital rights group Public Knowledge. "By making it easier for consumers to take a phone with them from one provider to another, we believe this legislation will enhance competition in the wireless market, improve the availability of free and low-cost secondhand phones, and keep millions of devices out of landfills,” staff attorney Laura Moy stated.
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