Legal Mobile Phone Unlocking Bill to Be Signed into Law

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Huzzah! It will once again be legal to unlock your mobile phone, including smartphones, in the U.S. The White House announced on Friday that President Obama would sign the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, which was passed unanimously in a rare act of bipartisanship in both houses of Congress.

According to the White House, "The bill not only restores the rights of consumers to unlock their phones, but ensures that they can receive help doing so if they lack the technological savvy to unlock on their own."

The idea of unlocking your mobile phone means that it can move to another network, though this requires that the device in question supports the different network in question. Even when it was possible, however, unlocking ran afoul of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) as written. That's because the locks put on mobile devices were protected under the DCMA.

This changed when an exception for mobile phones was put into place by the Library of Congress in 2010. That exception expired, however, thrusting unlocking back into the world of the questionably legal.

That began a quest by digital activists to get a permanent exception written into law. A petition was posted to the White House's We the People site demanding just such an exception—it gained more than 114,000 signatures.

That's nice, and all, but what's shocking is that it was then passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and it did so unanimously.

The White House called it, "a rare trifecta: a win for American consumers, a win for wireless competition, and an example of democracy at its best -- bipartisan congressional action in direct response to a call to action from the American people."

It's the first time that a petition launched on We The People has led to a legislative fix.&

In addition to requiring that the phones be physically capable of running on another network, the law also stipulates that customers must have fulfilled the terms of the contract. The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act is not carte blanche to get a phone from AT&T for a subsidized price and then bail on your contract for a free ride to Verizon.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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I think the only outstanding issue is to clearly place the iCloud unlock button on Apple iPhones.

Many people forget to turn iCloud off.  But I Think Apple enjoys this because an iCloud-locked iPhone needs to be replaced…. Its a new phone sale for Apple!

Ross Banick

The problem was that the mobile phone industry was hiding behind the wrong law to give them an artificial competitive edge. Nobody would consider it a “copyright” violation, to simply unlock a phone, yet, that’s exactly what it was considered. Yea, I know, you have to change the firmware in order to unlock the phone, but the change, as we all know, isn’t for the purpose of “copying”, it’s simply for the purpose of unlocking. And, it’s a phone that you own outright, as per the terms of the new law. Luckily, all my phones are unlocked from the start, but, it’s nice to know that the average person can now unlock them.

One thing, the article didn’t mention what the rules are on multiple unlocks per entity. In the past, the unlocking was “restricted” (e.g., T-Mobile gives you two unlocks per line per year, IIRC), expressly to prevent you from being a commercial unlocker, and, at times, unrestricted (anyone could unlock as many phones as they liked).

Does this bill restrict the number of unlocks per entity?

David 1

I like how a simple bill to allow consumers to do what they want with their purchased property is being hailed as an example of bipartisanship. This is how far things have fallen.

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