A Bill to Legalize Cell-Phone Unlocking Is Heading to Obama’s Desk

Lawmakers stripped out language that would have banned bulk unlocking.

People try the new Windows Phone 7 mobile operating system on October 11, 2010 in New York, New York. The phone, which will be available in the United States on AT&T's network, looks to compete with the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry smartphones.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Add to Briefcase
Brendan Sasso
July 25, 2014, 9:58 a.m.

The House un­an­im­ously passed le­gis­la­tion Fri­day to leg­al­ize cell-phone un­lock­ing, which would make it easi­er for con­sumers to switch pro­viders without buy­ing a new phone.

Pres­id­ent Obama is­sued a state­ment say­ing he will sign the le­gis­la­tion in­to law.

“The bill Con­gress passed today is an­oth­er step to­ward giv­ing or­din­ary Amer­ic­ans more flex­ib­il­ity and choice, so that they can find a cell phone car­ri­er that meets their needs and their budget,” he said.

The House already ap­proved a sim­il­ar bill in Feb­ru­ary, but that ver­sion in­cluded con­tro­ver­sial lan­guage to keep people from un­lock­ing phones in large batches. Con­sumer groups and many Demo­crats ral­lied against the pro­vi­sion, say­ing it un­der­mined the bill.

The Sen­ate ap­proved a ver­sion of the bill earli­er this month without the ban on bulk un­lock­ing. The House then agreed to pass the Sen­ate’s ver­sion of the bill. 

“This is something that Amer­ic­ans have been ask­ing for and I am pleased that we were able to work to­geth­er to en­sure the swift pas­sage of le­gis­la­tion restor­ing the ex­emp­tion that al­lowed con­sumers to un­lock their cell phones,” House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte said in a state­ment.

Most con­tract cell phones come “locked” to one net­work. Be­cause of a de­cision by the U.S. Copy­right Of­fice in 2012, cus­tom­ers must ob­tain their car­ri­ers’ per­mis­sion to leg­ally un­lock their phones to switch to com­pet­it­ors — even after they have com­pleted their con­tracts.

The de­cision promp­ted an im­me­di­ate pub­lic back­lash, and more than 114,000 people signed a White House pe­ti­tion in protest.

The Un­lock­ing Con­sumer Choice and Wire­less Com­pet­i­tion Act would over­turn the of­fice’s de­cision and would dir­ect the of­fice to con­sider wheth­er to al­low un­lock­ing of oth­er devices, such as tab­lets.

Con­sumer groups such as Pub­lic Know­ledge and the Elec­tron­ic Fron­ti­er Found­a­tion sup­port the bill, al­though they have also pushed for broad­er le­gis­la­tion that would amend the un­der­ly­ing copy­right law.

The Copy­right Of­fice is set to up­date its rules on cell-phone un­lock­ing any­way next year. 

CTIA, the lob­by­ing group for cell-phone car­ri­ers, ar­gues the is­sue is over­blown but backed the bill, say­ing it would at least “re­lieve con­sumer con­fu­sion.”

Un­der pres­sure from the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion, all the ma­jor car­ri­ers already signed on to a com­mit­ment last year to al­low their cus­tom­ers to un­lock their phones. 

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