Congress passes cellphone unlocking bill, Obama likely to sign it into law

unlock phone

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill on Friday allowing consumers to unlock mobile devices to work on a different carrier’s network. The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act was passed earlier this month by the Senate, leaving President Barack Obama’s signature as the last hurdle to be cleared before the bill becomes law.

Obama is almost certain to sign the bill. “The bill Congress passed today is another step toward giving ordinary Americans more flexibility and choice,” he said in a statement released on Friday. “I…look forward to signing this bill into law.”

Previously, unlocking phones in order to switch carriers could be considered a violation of federal copyright law, based on a provision in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Although that provision was designed to limit DRM cracking, it ended up applying to locked cell phones as well. In December, all four big carriers in the United States reached an agreement to make both prepaid and postpaid unlocking easier. The bill that passed the House protects those policies.

You might remember the House passing a version of this bill back in February. The ultimate version passed today is largely the same, but lacks one of the most controversial parts of the original: a short clause that prohibited unlocking “for the purpose of bulk resale.” That clause, which was intended to limit shady resellers or shops that unlock phones for a fee, was blasted by groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The bill originated as a citizen petition on the White House website and is a welcome consumer protection: after all, if you buy a device on a postpaid plan, you pay for it in installments and when your contract is up you should be able to plug a different carrier’s SIM card in it if you wish. However, when it becomes law it still won’t be permanent. Unless circumstances change, the rule will be reconsidered by the Library of Congress in 2015.

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