President Signs Bill Restoring Consumer Right to Unlock Mobile Handsets

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By Anandashankar Mazumdar  

Aug. 4 — Consumers again have the right to unlock their mobile telephone handsets so that they can change carriers, after the president signed legislation restoring an exemption that expired more than a year ago.

The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act (S. 517) reverses a decision by the Copyright Office not to renew an exemption from federal anticircumvention law allowing cellphone unlocking.

Several bills were introduced in a flurry in early 2013, but finally in the past month, a streamlined version of the bill sponsored by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, passed both houses of Congress.

Enthusiasm for legislation faded after the first deluge, particularly after wireless carriers entered into a voluntary agreement to allow unlocking by their customers.

Additional Restrictions Not Included

This legislation does not create a statutory right for consumers to unlock phones.

It merely reverses the Copyright Office's prior regulatory decision.

The version passed by the House and Senate also does not include a provision that was in some other unlocking bills that would bar a party from setting up a business to charge people for unlocking their phones for them.

Also not included is any express provision requiring a consumer to wait until her initial service contract has expired before allowing unlocking.

The bill also directs the Copyright Office to initiate a rulemaking proceeding to determine whether any wireless devices in addition to cellphones should be included in the unlocking exemption, so that consumers could change service providers.

Consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge issued a statement supporting the enactment of the legislation.

“This law is going to make it much easier for consumers to switch from one carrier to another. As a result, competition in the wireless market will improve,” the statement said. “In addition, there will be more free and low-cost secondhand phones available on the secondary market.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Anandashankar Mazumdar in Washington at amazumdar@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Naresh Sritharan at nsritharan@bna.com

Text is available at http://pub.bna.com/ptcj/113s517enr.pdf.