Cellphone-Unlocking Bill Passes Congress and Heads to Obama’s Desk

WASHINGTON (Tribune Washington Bureau/MCT) -

The House on Friday unanimously passed bipartisan legislation that would allow consumers to “unlock” their cellphones when switching providers.

The chamber’s approval came a week after the Senate passed the bill, so it advanced to the president’s desk with a few working days left before Congress’s August break.

President Barack Obama applauded Congress for passing the pro-consumer legislation and is expected to sign the act into law.

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

Passing any legislation these days can be considered a major accomplishment for the 113th Congress, which remains in partisan gridlock over immigration issues and how to pay for Veterans Affairs Department reform.

This session, Congress had enacted 125 bills as of June 30, according to GovTrack, a website that aggregates data on the legislative body. That’s the lowest number of bills passed within the first 544 days of any Congress since 1973, the earliest data GovTrack has. Seventy-two of those bills were approved in 2013.

On average, the previous five Congresses, in which neither party controlled both chambers, approved 254 bills in the same time period — more than double what current lawmakers have agreed on.

Work on the Unlocking Consumer Choice Act began after more than 100,000 people signed a White House petition to reverse a 2012 U.S. Copyright Office ruling that made it illegal for people to unlock their phones without the carrier’s permission.

“This is something that Americans have been asking for and I am pleased that we were able to work together to ensure the swift passage of legislation,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., said in a statement.

But the negotiations weren’t without difficulty. The House approved a similar bill in February, but that version included language that many consumer groups found problematic.

The bill forbade people from unlocking multiple cellphones, a practice called bulk unlocking. That provision was “harmful to the reform,” said Chris Lewis, vice president of government affairs at Public Knowledge.

The Senate version, which the House agreed to Friday, removed the bulk-unlocking clause.

Currently, most contract phones are locked to the cellular provider that sells them, and consumers must obtain permission to unlock phones — even after the phones are paid off and contracts have expired. Consequently, consumers often need to buy a new phone if they want to switch to a different carrier.

For years, the Copyright Office granted temporary exemptions making unlocking legal. The last exemption expired in 2012 and wasn’t renewed.

The new legislation would reinstate the 2010 exemption, the last year unlocking was granted amnesty. The bill also directs the Librarian of Congress to consider whether other electronic devices, such as tablets, could be unlocked legally.

The restored right would last only until the next scheduled review by the Copyright Office, in 2016.

“The cellphone unlocking bill has a direct impact on Americans as we become more reliant on our wireless devices,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “I appreciate the House’s quick action and look forward to the president signing this bipartisan bill.”