smartphone unlocking legal
July 30, 2014

House Approves Bill That Would Legalize Unlocking Smartphones

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Smartphone customers living in the US will soon be able to legally unlock their devices for use on other mobile carriers, as the House of Representatives has approved a bill to allow decriminalization of the practice.

Following in the footsteps of the Senate, which approved the bill earlier this summer, the House unanimously passed the “Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act” Friday afternoon, according to Jacob Kastrenakes of The Verge. President Obama, who spoke out in favor for this policy more than a year ago, has already said that he will sign the bill 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,” the President said in a statement, according to Kastrenakes. “I commend Chairmen Leahy and Goodlatte, and Ranking Members Grassley and Conyers for their leadership on this important consumer issue and look forward to signing this bill into law.”

As SlashGear’s JC Torres explained on Tuesday, the process of circumventing software protection required to make phones usable on other wireless networks was originally prohibited under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 until a limited exception was granted by the Library of Congress. That exception expired in January 2013.

If signed into law, this new bill would make phone unlocking legal, but once again only on a temporary basis, Torres added. The Library of Congress will review the law in 2015, and again every three years thereafter. While he said there is “little chance that the favorable attitude towards the bill will completely flip by next year,” it does allow for this exception to be subjected to “the political mood, whims, and not to mention lobbying in Congress.”

Even so, the news of the bill’s passing was welcomed by groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which called the bill’s passage “a win for consumers” in a statement Monday. However, the organization added that the victory was “just a tiny step toward what should be the real goal: fundamental reform of the misguided law that is the heart of the problem,” the DCMA.

The US Copyright Office originally passed a DCMA exemption allowing the unlocking of smartphones, but not tablets, back in October 2012. However, while those exemptions were supposed to remain in place until the next copyright review took place three years later, they essentially lasted only a few months until Congress enacted new regulations that made it illegal to have a third-party unlock your mobile device.

“Consumers want to be able to unlock their phones so they can use them with the carrier of their choice, and that has nothing to do with copyright infringement,” the EFF said. “Enforcing the business models of telephone companies is way out beyond what copyright law is supposed to do. Unfortunately, it's not that unusual an application of the DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions. In the 16 years since the DMCA became law, it’s done little to hinder infringements but a lot to shut down innovation and free speech.”

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