House votes to allow cellphone 'unlocking'

The House on Friday passed legislation allowing people to “unlock” their cellphones and switch from one carrier to another, sending the bill to the president’s desk.

The bill won unanimous support in the lower chamber and has been widely backed by lawmakers in both parties as well as the wireless industry and consumer advocates.

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“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 (R-Va.) said in a statement after the Friday vote.

Under a 2012 decision by the Librarian of Congress, people who “unlock” their phones to switch between providers like AT&T or Verizon after their contract runs out are in violation of federal copyright law.

The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act would reverse that decision and reestablish a former exemption for people unlocking their cellphones.

“Once the president signs this bill into law, consumers will be able to more easily use their existing cellphones on the wireless carrier of their choice,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said.

The bill was introduced on the heels of a White House petition last year in which more than 114,000 people claimed the 2012 decision “reduces consumer choice, and decreases the resale value of devices that consumers have paid for in full.” In December, major wireless companies reached an agreement to make it easier for people to use phones on other networks, after prodding from the Federal Communications Commission.

President Obama praised lawmakers’ action in a statement after the House vote and called the bill “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.”

An earlier version of the legislation in the House would have prevented people from unlocking phones for “bulk resale,” a controversial measure that wireless companies said was necessary to discourage phone theft. That prohibition was dropped from the Senate bill, however, and is not in the legislation that heads to President Obama’s desk.  

While the legal barrier for switching carriers might have been removed, some technological obstacles could still prevent people from seamlessly using the same phone on multiple networks.

 

-- Updated at 3:26 p.m.

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