Cellphone unlocking bill passes Congress, heads for Obama's desk

Congress approved a bipartisan bill to allow consumers to unlock their cellphones when switching providers

The U.S. House unanimously passed bipartisan legislation that would allow consumers to unlock their cellphones when switching providers, at least for two more years.

The chamber's approval Friday, a week after the Senate backed the same measure, sends the bill to the president's desk with just a few working days left before Congress' August break.

President Obama, who is expected to sign the bill into law, applauded Congress for passing the pro-consumer legislation.

"The bill Congress passed today is another step toward giving ordinary Americans more flexibility and choice so that they can find a cellphone carrier that meets their needs and their budget," Obama said.

Consumer advocates praised the final passage.

"This bill ensures that consumers will be able to do what they rightfully expect to be able to do with phones they have purchased: Use them on whatever network they like," said Laura Moy, a staff lawyer at advocacy group Public Knowledge.

The legislation is about "giving consumers more choices and options for their phones," said George Slover, senior policy counsel at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports magazine. "This legislation can help consumers save some money, and it can help drive competition in both mobile phone technology and wireless service."

Carriers, meantime, have accepted the change. The mobile industry's chief trade group, CTIA-The Wireless Assn., said the legislation would clear up confusion surrounding previous federal efforts over unlocked cellphones.

"It is important to note that CTIA's members already committed to a set of voluntary principles that enable consumers interested in unlocking their devices to do so," spokesman Jot Carpenter said.

Work on the Unlocking Consumer Choice Act began after more than 100,000 people signed a White House petition to reverse a 2012 U.S. Copyright Office ruling that made it illegal for people to unlock their phones without the carrier's permission.

"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," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) said.

But the negotiations were difficult. The House approved a similar bill in February, but the earlier version included language that many consumer groups found problematic.

That measure would have forbidden people from unlocking multiple cellphones, a practice called bulk unlocking. That provision was "harmful to the reform," said Chris Lewis, a vice president at Public Knowledge.

The Senate version, which the House agreed to Friday, removed the bulk unlocking clause.

Currently, most contract phones are locked to the cellular provider that sold them, and consumers must obtain permission to unlock the phones — even after the phones are paid off and contracts have expired. So consumers often need to buy a new phone if they want to switch carriers.

For years, the Copyright Office granted temporary exemptions making unlocking legal. The last exemption expired in 2012 and wasn't renewed.

If approved by Obama, the new law would reinstate the exemption. The legislation also directs the Librarian of Congress to consider whether other devices, such as tablets, could be unlocked legally.

The restored right would last only until the next scheduled review by the Copyright Office in 2016.

"The cellphone unlocking bill has a direct impact on Americans as we become more reliant on our wireless devices," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

rebecca.bratek@latimes.com

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