Nation & World News

Bill Allowing Americans To Unlock Cellphones Passes House, Heads To Obama

By Bill Chappell on July 25th, 2014

Approving a bill that has already passed the Senate, the House of Representatives has given its consent to legislation that lets U.S. consumers “unlock” their cellphones, rather than having them remain linked to specific service providers.

President Obama says he will sign the bill into law, applauding Congress today for taking “another step toward giving ordinary Americans more flexibility and choice, so that they can find a cellphone carrier that meets their needs and their budget.”

The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., was passed by a vote of 295 to 114 Friday; the Senate version, championed by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was approved 10 days ago.

The legislation repeals a recent ruling by the Library of Congress that found copyright laws could be strictly enforced over “locked” phones because of evolution in the cellphone marketplace.

But critics had said the rule hurt several groups of consumers: those who wanted to link their phones to overseas carriers when they traveled; those who wanted to switch carriers; and those who wanted to sell phones they’ve bought through a wireless company.

After today’s House vote, Laura Moy, staff attorney at advocacy group Public Knowledge, said the new law would boost competition in the wireless market and “improve the availability of free and low-cost secondhand phones for consumers who cannot afford to purchase new devices.”

She also said “it will keep millions of devices out of landfills.”

The new law would re-establish an exemption to a section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that prohibited unlocking a phone. The bill also directs the Librarian of Congress to review whether the exemption should apply to tablets and other devices as well as phones.

In February 2013, a public petition to legalize “unlocking” phones blew past the White House’s 100,000-signature threshold that requires a response; later that year, President Obama asked the Federal Communications Commission to legalize the practice.

As NPR’s Laura Sydell has reported, the FCC agreed on terms with wireless carriers in December, in a deal that would require companies such as AT&T and Verizon to unlock a phone from their networks, but only if a customer asks them to — and only if their contract has ended.

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