Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Cellphone Unlocking May Soon Be Legal Again

Did you know that as of Jan 26, 2013, it was "illegal" to unlock your phone? Today however, the tides have changed and the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act by a vote of 295-114. The new bill would make it entirely legal for any consumer to 'unlock' any device (no longer on subsidies we suppose) and take said device to any carrier of their choosing.

For those unfamiliar, service providers like AT&T and Verizon typically lock their devices so they can only be used with their service. If unlocked, phones can be taken over to other carriers. This is hugely important for promoting healthy competition and empowering consumer choice, not to mention being very useful for travel.

A provision of the DMCA and federal copyright laws has always made it illegal to circumvent phone locking software and unlock phones to use on a different carrier without the original carriers permission. Until last year that provision was granted exemption by the Librarian of Congress who is allowed to grant exceptions, and did until his October 2012 decision to allow the DMCA to regulate cell phone locking.

Fast forward to Jan 26th, when the exceptions expired, and the software used to lock phones quickly lost its exemption and once again became covered under the same digital copyright laws as most other software. Meaning users could no longer bypass those locks or software, or create any software that could be used at unauthorized attempts at unlocking phones.

Under current law, those unlocking their phones without permission could face legal ramifications, including jail. The notion of undoing that law has had wide support from both Republicans and Democrats as well as many consumer groups since the bill's introduction in the House in 2013.

If passed within the Senate, and signed into law, the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act would repeal the Library of Congress (LOC) rulemaking determination and reestablish the previous exemption to those provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) prohibiting such circumvention and permitting the use of computer programs, in the form of firmware or software, to unlock phones.

This would be great news for consumers looking for choice in their wireless plans. Major carriers, including Verizon Wireless, AT&T Inc, Sprint Corp, T-Mobile US and U.S. Cellular, in December made a voluntary pledge to make it easier for consumers to unlock their cellphones. However, there have still been several hurdles to for consumer to clear and the process has been anything but painless.

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