The House of Representatives passed a bill on Tuesday that says consumers have the right to unlock their mobile device for use on a different carrier’s network. This concept of unlocking is seen by many as commonsense, including the White House, which recently responded to a petition by saying “this issue is about the simple freedom to take your business where you please.”
But not everyone is happy about how the vote unfolded. Critics, including consumer advocates and Silicon Valley lawmakers who once supported the bill, are decrying what they say is a last minute bait-and-switch to the law, know as the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, which passed by a margin of 295-114.
The switch in question, inserted by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va), is a short clause that says the proposed law doesn’t permit unlocking “for the purpose of bulk resale.” Goodlatte didn’t explain the change, but the language suggests it is aimed at phone resellers or at shops where technicians unlock phones for a fee.
Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are blasting the provision as an abuse of copyright law (they have a point), but for many average consumers the issue is whether the law would make it more difficult to unlock their phone.
I can attest that this is a legitimate concern, based on a nightmare experience I endured when I switched from AT&T to T-Mobile last fall. Even though I owned my iPhone free and clear, AT&T simply refused to unlock it for nearly a week, leaving me without service.
While the “bulk resale” language used in the bill would not necessarily affect a situation like mine, it could open the door for similar mischief. It also undercuts the larger principle that people should be able to do what they like with their own property — and, yes, if you’ve paid for it, your phone is your property.
The House bill will now go to the Senate, where the fate of the bulk unlocking provision is unclear.