Senate Passes Cellphone Unlocking Bill, Lets Users Keep Phones, Switch Carriers

Giuseppe Macri | Tech Editor

The U.S. Senate has unanimously passed a bill legalizing cell phone unlocking, which will allow consumers to switch carriers and keep the same phones when their contracts expire.

Vermont Democrat and Senate President Pro Tempore Patrick Leahy introduced the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act in the upper chamber, where it was passed by a unanimous consent agreement Tuesday night.

The bill creates an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which made it illegal to disconnect a phone from the service provider it was sold from. Most phones are only programmed to function on a specific network when sold, but carriers have the option of removing such restrictions when a buyer’s contract is up. Consumers have been unlocking phones themselves for years — which is a legally dubious practice.

Specifically, the legislation mandates that the Library of Congress renew its prior 2006-2012 exemption to the DMCA, which expired last January, and consider its renewal every three years. It also modifies the exemption to allow individuals and third parties (like professional unlocking services) to unlock phones, as the process requires technical expertise beyond the average user.

A similar bill was passed in the House earlier this year with the exception of a provisional ban on unlocking phones “for the purpose of bulk resale,” which was removed to protect companies that sell prepaid phones. The Verge reports Leahy will be working closely with Virginia Republican and House version author Bob Goodlatte in order to conference through the bill quickly and get it to the desk of President Obama, who announced his support for the policy more than a year ago.

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