House to pass cell phone freedom bill

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The House this week will pass a bill giving everyone the freedom to switch cell phone service carriers, without having to buy a new cell phone.

Members will call up the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, H.R. 1123, and pass it as early as Tuesday.

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The bill is designed to expand an exemption that currently allows some people — but not all — to "unlock" their cell phones and switch carriers.

Specifically, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was put in place in 1998 to prevent people from fiddling with technology in their phone that locks them into one network. That law gives the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress the authority to make some exceptions.

Until recently, that office allowed people to unlock their phones and switch mobile networks. But in late 2012, the Library of Congress said it would no longer extend this exception.

That decision means anyone with a phone bought before January 27, 2013, is allowed to unlock their phone. However, phones bought on that date or later do not have that same flexibility.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and sponsored the bill, says consumers should be allowed to switch carriers on their phone once their original contract expires.

"Consumers are still subject to their contractual obligations," Goodlatte wrote in August. "However, once these are met, this bill would allow a cell phone to be unlocked and switched to another carrier if that is what the consumer chooses. The bill would also apply to tablets connected to cellular service.

"This bipartisan legislation is focused on protecting consumer choice," he added.

The bill is expected to pass easily in the House — last summer, Goodlatte's committee approved in in a voice vote.

In addition, Obama administration is expected to support the move, a sign that the bill even has a chance in the Democratic Senate. Last year, the White House said it supported a petition called for the extended freedom to unlock cell phones, and indicated it could support Goodlatte's bill.

"The Obama administration would support a range of approaches to addressing this issue, including narrow legislative fixes in the telecommunications space that make it clear: neither criminal law nor technological locks should prevent consumers from switching carriers when they are no longer bound by a service agreement or other obligation," the White House said.

House GOP leaders are calling up Goodlatte's bill as a suspension bill on Tuesday, which means it will get a shorter debate and require a two-thirds majority for passage.

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