Cell phone freedom bill passes House

Legislation aimed at letting people use their cell phones with any mobile carrier they wish was narrowly approved by the House today, after several Democrats opposed the bill due to a last minute change in the text.

House Republicans called up the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, H.R. 1123. The bill would extend the ability of people to "unlock" their cell phones and use them with a new carrier, once their original service contract expires.

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Consumers have been permitted to unlock their phones in the past under an exemption created by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. But the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress, which has the authority to use this exception, decided not to extend it.

That means without legislation, anyone with a phone that was bought on January 27, 2013 or later cannot unlock their phones legally.

Extending this exemption had broad support from Republicans and Democrats. However, GOP leaders made a last-minute change to the bill that says the bill does not permit "bulk unlocking," which opponents say could make it difficult for companies to go into the business of unlocking phones for consumers.

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) said he opposes the bill now because it indicates congressional opposition to the idea of allowing bulk unlocking services.

"The last-minute change that was made in this bill… puts a real poison pill in this bill for consumer advocates such as myself," Polis said. "Many consumers won't be unlocking their phones themselves. There needs to be a market in unlocked phones."

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) countered that the change does not create an outright prohibition against bulk unlocking, and that it's possible for companies to work around the language to provide unlocking services to consumers.

"It does not prevent the sale of unlocked bulk phones being sold and resold," Issa said. "It does not prevent the bulk sale of locked phones."

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), added that while some want to go further with the bill on the issue of bulk unlocking, it's important for Congress to at least make sure it's legal again for people unlock recently-purchased phones.

Opposition from Polis and other members put the bill at some risk of not passing in the House today, as the GOP called up the bill under a suspension of House rules. That requires a two-thirds majority vote.

But even despite the late opposition, the House approved the bill 295-114, with the help of 95 Democrats.

House passage sends the bill to the Senate, which gives Senate Democrats a chance — if they take it up — to amend the bill.