House Votes To Let Consumers Unlock Cell Phones

The House of Representatives this week passed a bill that would allow people to unlock their cell phones, in order to use the devices with their choice of wireless carriers.

The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act (H.R. 1123) aims to ensure that consumers who unlock their phones won't face prosecution.

In the past, consumers were allowed to unlock their wireless devices -- even if doing so required circumventing digital rights management software. While thwarting that type of software potentially is a crime, every three years the Copyright Office comes out with exceptions to the anti-circumvention rules. Until recently the Copyright Office made such an exception for cell phone unlocking. But in October of 2012, the Copyright Office reversed course, effectively subjecting people who unlock phones to the threat of criminal prosecution.

That move sparked a backlash, with many observers asking why a copyright law aimed at preventing piracy should be able to prevent people from changing wireless carriers. The White House said it supported changing the law, and several bills to do so were introduced in Congress.



The bill that was passed by the House this week effectively restores the pre-2012 rules -- at least for consumers. But the bill still doesn't allow "bulk unlocking" -- meaning that companies that unlock phones as part of a business could still risk sanctions.

That aspect of the bill drew criticism from advocacy group Public Knowledge. “It's clear that more needs to be done to prevent copyright law from interfering with consumers' rights and picking winners and losers between business models,”  Sherwin Siy, vice president of legal affairs said in a statement.

The bill's fate in the Senate isn't yet known. Meanwhile, however, the major wireless carriers already agreed to allow consumers to unlock their mobile phones after their contracts expire. The carriers -- Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular -- said last December that they will adopt a new code that requires them to notify consumers when their phones are eligible for unlocking, and to then unlock devices for people at no charge.

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