Bloomberg News

Obama to Sign Bill Letting Owners Unlock Smartphones

July 25, 2014

Smartphone owners may unlock the devices to switch wireless carriers after service contracts expire under legislation that passed Congress today and is headed for President Barack Obama’s desk.

The measure reverses a 2012 ruling by the Librarian of Congress that said unlocking phones violated copyrights. Unlocking is done by entering a software code so that phones can connect to a different network.

A Senate bill that would legalize unlocking passed the House without a recorded vote. That sent the measure to Obama, who said in an e-mailed statement that he looks “forward to signing this bill.” Obama called the measure “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.”

The developments complete a drama that included the librarian’s 2012 decision, at the urging of wireless carriers, that unlocking phones amounted to a copyright violation.

More than 114,000 people endorsed an Internet petition to the White House opposing that finding. The Obama administration expressed support for the petition, saying that criminal law and technological locks shouldn’t keep consumers from switching carriers if not bound by a service agreement.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler in November said the agency would write regulations if the industry didn’t act, and wireless carriers led by Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ:US) and AT&T Inc. in December said they will let consumers unlock phones after contracts expire.

Verizon, AT&T

The completed bill “gives consumers the ability to pick another wireless service without having to give up a perfectly good, working phone,” George Slover, senior policy counsel for the advocacy group Consumers Union, said in an e-mailed statement.

“This is a good day for consumers and wireless carriers, especially smaller carriers who still have trouble accessing the most advanced devices,” Steven Berry, president of the Competitive Carriers Association, a Washington-based trade group, said in an e-mail.

“Today’s action by the House moves us closer to alleviating any confusion,” Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs at CTIA-The Wireless Association, said in an e-mailed statement. “CTIA’s members already committed to a set of voluntary principles.”

The Washington-based group lists as members the four largest U.S. mobile providers, including No. 3 Sprint Corp. and T-Mobile US Inc.

The bill is S. 517.

To contact the reporter on this story: Todd Shields in Washington at tshields3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Romaine Bostick at rbostick@bloomberg.net Elizabeth Wasserman, Michael Shepard


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