US Congress passes bill to allow cell phone unlocking

The US House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill called S517, which allows American citizens to unlock their cellphones so that they may retain their phone when changing service providers.  The bill that was passed originated in the Senate, and was not amended in any fashion.  There was some controversy and debate in the House, when certain amendments were proposed to stop “bulk” unlocking of phones.  If the amendments had been approved, the bill would have protected only individuals when unlocking their own personal property and would not have protected any companies offering unlocking services.  But those amendments were dropped.

Freed mobile phone

President Obama is expected to sign the bill, as the White House has been supportive of cell phone unlocking.

Unlocking one’s cell phone in the US was legal from 2006 until 2012, as the Librarian of Congress granted an exemption from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which bans circumvention of copy protection.  When that exemption lapsed, the Librarian of Congress failed to renew it, and a whole wave of protests arose.  A petition to the White House garnered 114,00 signatures, and led to a White House announcement in favor of changing this rule.

The current bill is a good solution to the problem, but is also somewhat late.  The FCC has already pressured the cell phone carriers to allow unlocking, and they have agreed to this.  Unlocking by the carriers would have come no later than February of 2015.

Though this is a welcome, and unusually on target response by Congress, it is also something of a lost opportunity to cut into the DMCA.  The anti-circumvention clause is still causing problems in research, archives, access to one’s own hardware and fair use of media.  And of course it stifles innovation and competition.  DMCA reform is necessary, but must be done without endangering some of the good sections of the act, like the safe harbor provisions for websites.  I think the outlook for real reform is very bleak at the moment.

If you wish to read more on the passage of S517, there are many sites covering it.  Ars Technica is one.