The Senate has advanced a bill to legalize cell phone unlocking

July 10, 2014

We're one step closer to a world where it's no longer a huge chore to take your existing cell phone to another network.

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a bill that'd make it easier for you to "unlock" your cell phone so that you can port it to a different carrier — much in the way you can bring your phone number with you.

"With today’s strong bipartisan vote in the Judiciary Committee, I hope the full Senate can soon take up this important legislation that supports consumer rights," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman.

The House has already passed a similar bill — but unlike the House version the Senate's, notably, doesn't forbid people from unlocking lots of cell phones. That language is important when it comes to businesses that trade in second-hand devices; currently, you can only unlock your phone if you ask for your carrier's permission (and only at the end of your contract). By allowing a third party to unlock a phone on behalf of its owner, the Senate bill potentially helps third-party businesses.

The wireless industry supports both bills and last year agreed to be more upfront with consumers about when and how they can request an unlock. But the industry also warns that opening up the doors to cell phone unlocking too much could help thieves get away with stealing phones.

How did we get here in the first place? Well, cell phone unlocking is technically illegal under the copyright law, because it involves trying to get around technological protections on the copyrighted software in the phones. It was only through a series of recurring government exemptions that consumers could perform the trick at all. But in 2012, the government opted not to renew the exception for cell phone unlocking, making it again a violation of copyright to unlock your phone.

Copyright reform advocates point to this as an example of why the Digital Millennium Copyright Act from 1998 needs to be revised. But neither the Senate nor the House legislation on cell phone unlocking will be touching that lightning rod.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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