Senate OK's phone unlocking bill, must sync with House

Through a unanimous consent agreement, the US Senate has passed the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act. Should this bill be approved by both Senate and House in its final form, it would once again make it legal for mobile phone owners to have their devices unlocked after their contract with a carrier has expired.

This phone unlocking circus might sound a bit whimsical, but it has a rather long and contentious history. The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (yes, the same DMCA that has given birth to dozens, if not hundreds, of sometimes frivolous and mistaken "take down" notices) decreed that the circumvention of copyrighted software, which is basically what is being performed when unlocking a phone, is illegal. The Library of Congress fortunately granted a grace period from 2006 to 2012 to allow customers of that generation to change providers should they want to. Unfortunately, that exception expired in January 2013, making the act of unlocking a phone illegal again.

Naturally, many consumers were up in arms about this, which led to the birth and the name of the bill. At the heart of the matter is the consumer's freedom to choose the carrier he or she wants. On the opposite side of the ring, carriers and DMCA advocates want to protect the IP rights of companies as well. The bill does somewhat take into account both sides, as it will legalize unlocking of phones only after a contract's term has expired.

There is, however, still one major issue to be resolved before this can become law. In February, the House passed a law that, at the last minute, included provisions that would make bulk unlocking of cellphones illegal. Advocacy groups objected to this as it put businesses that revolved around such procedures in a tight spot, causing some House members to switch sides. Now both Senate and House will have to sync their versions of the bill before they can submit it for President Obama's final stamp.

That said, even if it were to become law, it addresses only a part of the problem. The bill only covers the unlocking of phones, leaving the fate of other wireless mobile devices like tablets hanging. That said, the Senate directed the Librarian of Congress to look into this matter. The new law would also establish a legal precedent that would make it easier for tablets and future devices to be included in the coverage.

VIA: Ars Technica