Science and Tech


Congress OKs Unlocking Phones From Carriers

A bill legalizing "unlocking," or untethering a phone from its default wireless carrier, has passed Congress and is expected to be signed into law.
Posted at 10:22 PM, Jul 26, 2014

Sick of your wireless carrier, but unwilling to give up your phone to make the switch? Well, pretty soon you'll have other options, thanks to a bill just passed by Congress.

On Friday, the House of Representatives ratified the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, passed in the Senate last week, which is now awaiting a promised signature from President Obama

The bill legalizes "unlocking" cell phones so they can be used with a different service provider. It won't get you out of any contracts, but unfettered consumers are now legally free to switch networks whenever they want. (Via Sprint, Verizon, AT&T,T-Mobile)

But why was unlocking your phone illegal in the first place? Well, it's all thanks to a clause in the much-maligned Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 

The 1998 law contains language banning any attempt to circumvent digital copyright protection measures — which, according to many providers, includes the phone software tethering your device to a single carrier. (Via Electronic Frontier Foundation)

Fortunately for consumers, the U.S. Library of Congress can grant exemptions to the DMCA, which they did for cell phone unlocking back in 2006. Less fortunately, that exemption expired in 2012 after the Library failed to renew it. (Via Getty Images)

That ruling sparked protests from tech consumer advocates. Today's bill originally started as a petition to The White House which raised more than 114,000 signatures.

It's also worth noting that most major carriers in the U.S. voluntarily agreed to unlock their customers' phones back in December 2013, after facing pressure from the Federal Communications Commission and the public. (Via ArsTechnica)

But cell phone unlocking may not be legal for long. The Library of Congress is set to review the practice in 2015, and its decision could outlaw unlocking all over again.

A writer at the Los Angeles Times says Congress needs to address fundamental problems with the DMCA, comparing their latest effort to "stopping people from coughing without curing their colds. It's a work-around that focuses on the symptoms, not the disease."

One final note: unlocking a phone is not the same as jailbreaking an iOS device. That process is currently exempt from the DMCA when it comes to iPhones and iPods, but not on tablets — and those rules are up for review in 2015 as well.