Cellphone Unlocking Bill Passes Congress, So You Can Use That Old Samsung, Now
American consumers had a small victory in Congress Friday, after a bill allowing cellphones to be legally unlocked passed the House of Representatives. The unanimous (and, considering our Congress, remarkably speedy) decision came less than two weeks after the Senate also OK'd it. Now, S517 goes straight to President Barack Obama's desk, where he's promised to sign it and officially make it law.
There's hardly anything more frustrating than a locked phone. You buy it, you use it, you love it, you hate it. Through thick and thin, your phone is with you — until, that is, your contract ends, you switch carriers, and you find out it's a headache and a half to take the device with you. Screw it, you think to yourself — you'll just throw the wretched thing in with the rest of your electronic junk from '09, and go with the brand new iPhone/Blackberry/Android.
Or you buy your beautiful phone, use it happily in the States, then get the chance to travel. Of course, you take your mobile with you — only to discover that it won't let you insert the SIM you just bought for 20 euros at the sketchy store on the corner. It's locked.
Of course, as any tech-savvy person will know, it's not exactly hard to unlock a cellphone, if you know where to go. But it is — or has been, till today — technically illegal. Most contract phones you buy in the U.S. are locked to the carrier you buy them from, meaning they can't be switched and used with other operators, even after the contract is over and you've paid the darn thing off.
Congress' decision on Friday to pass S517 changes that, although perhaps slightly less drastically than we would hope. As CNET points out, there remain some technical issues that mean you're still not gonna be able to always take your favorite phone to any carrier you'd like. People with providers like AT&T and T-Mobile — which use SIM cards, which are interchangeable — will find it easier than those with Sprint and Verizon. Still, it's a step forward for consumers everywhere.
"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.
The Unlocking Consumer Choice Act came to being in response to a petition created by frustrated California entrepreneur Sina Khanifar, which quickly gathered over 100,000 signatures. The petition called for the White House to reverse a 2012 Library of Congress decision not to renew an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (which basically meant that, since 2012, unlocking phones has been illegal). Said Khanifar to the Washington Post in response to Friday's decision:
It's been really heartening to learn that if you care enough about a particular issue, you can have a real impact on the law. Though it was pretty frustrating at times, a combination of citizen advocacy and online activism seems to have had a real, tangible impact.
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