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Obama signs law allowing cell phones to be unlocked

Published time: August 01, 2014 23:49
Frazer Harrison / Getty Images / AFP

Frazer Harrison / Getty Images / AFP

​President Barack Obama has signed into law a bill making it legal for consumers to “unlock” their cell phones in order to use a different wireless network.

Known as the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, the law orders the Library of Congress to allow mobile phone owners to unlock their devices – typically tied, or “locked,” to a specific service provider like Verizon or Sprint – and use them on competing networks.

Previously, wireless carriers kept phones locked to their networks even after contracts expired in an attempt to keep customers from switching companies. In 2012, the Library of Congress made it illegal to void this technology via cell phone unlocking, meaning those that untied their phones could potentially face legal action and, in some cases, jail time.

After Congress approved of legislation to make the action legal again, President Obama praised the move and said he looked forward to signing it.

"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," he said last week, when the bill cleared Congress.

In a statement to CBS News, the Public Knowledge group also welcomed the bill’s passage.

"This bill ensures that consumers will be able to do what they rightfully expect to be able to do with phones they have purchased: use them on whatever network they like," said Laura Moy, one of the group’s attorney.

"It protects consumers who unlock their devices from possible criminal and civil liability under an overreaching copyright law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which was designed to protect copyright but has had enormous unintended consequences."

As RT noted last week, lawmakers decided to take action on the issue after a petition on Whitehouse.gov garnered more than 114,000 signatures in support of unlocking. The petition’s success compelled the president to respond, and he said he would support congressional action on the issue.

Despite Obama’s signature, the law does not permanently end the conversation around unlocking. The Library of Congress will have to reconsider the rule in 2015 and every three years after that unless Congress takes further action. There’s already movement on a bill that would set the rule in stone, but it’s unclear when or if that would pass.

Sina Khanifar, the creator of the White House petition and one of the cause’s lead advocates, praised the new law but said more changes need to be made to the DMCA – which bans “circumvention of technological measures – to ensure copyright laws are not needlessly restrictive."

“The bill’s a great step forwards, but we had to make a lot of compromises along the way,” he said in a statement. “For one thing, it’s not a permanent fix … I asked repeatedly for Congress to make the exemption permanent, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren [D-Calif.] even introduced the excellent ‘Unlocking Technology Act of 2013’ that would have done just that.”

“Unfortunately, Congress wasn't ready to deal with the underlying copyright issue that makes it illegal to unlock your phone. Doing so would require amending the DMCA’s controversial anti-circumvention provisions, a step that’s desperately needed.”

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