Obama to 'unlock' cellphone rights: How free will you be?

Congress passed a bipartisan bill to allow customers to unlock their cellphones and use them with any carrier. President Obama says he'll sign the bill. But the battle isn't over.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
The Apple iPhone 4s, (l.), is displayed next to the Samsung Galaxy S III at a store in San Francisco in 2012. On Friday, Congress passed a bill allowing consumers to 'unlock' cellphones, so they may be used on any carrier's plan.

A bill passed by Congress and waiting to be signed by President Obama represents a big win for consumers, who have long sought ability to "unlock" cellphones – allowing them to be used on any carrier's plan. But it does not mark the end of the battle and could be only a temporary victory.

The issue may seem obvious on its face: If consumers buy phones, why should a telecom giant be able to tell them how to use it? But the Library of Congress backed the patent office in 2012, saying that most unlocking amounted to illegal tampering according to US copyright law.

The bipartisan bill that passed the Senate on June 15 and the House on Friday reverses the United States Copyright Office decision. Mr. Obama said Friday he would sign the bill, called the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act.

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

Most telecoms today force consumers to throw away serviceable phones if they want to change service. So the bill on Obama’s desk would immediately free consumer choice, boost the lower-price secondhand market for high-end phones, and also keep more phones out of landfills, said Laura Moy, an attorney at the tech policy think tank Public Knowledge.  

The bill would “make it easier for consumers to switch from one provider to another, improving competition in the wireless market,” Ms. Moy said in a statement.

But it’s not a total win for the little guy. Mobile providers can still set conditions to prevent consumers from unlocking and changing services during the course of a contract. In addition, the Library of Congress will revisit the issue in 2015 to weigh arguments from those who stand to lose the most from allowing consumers to easily unlock expensive cellphones. The list of companies includes AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.

“It appears unlikely that unlocking will be banned again next year given the wide support for it, but there may be a continued struggle for its legalization in the future,” writes Jacob Kastrenakes for The Verge website.

Still, those who championed the unlocking bill see it as a first step toward more thoroughly reforming US copyright law and how it deals with technology. That could include allowing consumers to unlock “any digital lock as long as they’re not violating copyright,” said Moy. “This could apply to consumer products that all Americans use, ranging from cars to tractors to hearing aids.”

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