Mobile Phone Unlocking Bill Clears Congress; Obama to Sign

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By Brandon Ross  

July 25 — Congress passed legislation to let consumers bypass the firmware on their mobile phones, allowing them to switch wireless carriers while keeping their phones. President Barack Obama said he will sign the measure into law.

The House cleared by voice vote the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act (S. 517) on July 25. The measure passed the Senate earlier this month.

Obama issued a press release July 25 commending Sens. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee; and Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), chairman and ranking member of House Judiciary.

Obama applauded “their leadership on this important consumer issue” and said he “look[s] forward to signing this bill into law.”

Laura Moy, staff attorney at Washington-based advocacy group Public Knowledge, praised the bill in a July 25 statement. “It protects consumers who unlock their devices from possible criminal and civil liability under an overreaching copyright law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which was designed to protect copyright but has had enormous unintended consequences.”

Anti-Circumvention Exemption

The bill will restore an exemption to the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA of 1998, 17 U.S.C. §1201(a), in order to permit consumers to legally unlock their mobile phones.

The librarian of Congress, James Billington, drawing on his authority under the DMCA, made the exemption in 2010 and withdrew it in 2012. In response, more than 114,000 citizens petitioned the White House to formally rescind the decision.

“The bipartisan Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act puts consumers first, promotes competition in the wireless phone marketplace, and encourages continued use of existing devices,” Leahy, the S. 517 sponsor, said in a statement praising the House vote.

The bill will direct the librarian of Congress to consider whether tablets and other wireless devices should fall under the proposed unlocking law, a measure absent from a similar House bill (H.R. 1123).

To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Ross in Washington at bross@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

The full text of S. 517 is at http://op.bna.com/der.nsf/r?Open=sbay-9mcrs8.