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Congress passes bill to legalize unlocking phones

by NICK WINGFIELD New York Times News Service on July 27, 2014 1:34 AM

Soon, you will no longer be breaking the law if you unlock your cell phone.

On Friday, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would make it legal for consumers to open the digital locks on their cell phones so they could more easily switch wireless carriers. The Senate has already passed the bill.

Under a law intended to prevent copyright infringement, consumers now risk fines of up to $500,000 and five years in jail if they unlock their cell phones without the consent of their wireless carriers.

The restrictions against unlocking are deeply unpopular with the public.

Once they have fulfilled their contracts with their wireless carriers, which typically involve paying for wireless service for a couple of years, many people want to use their devices on the network of another wireless company, from whom they could obtain lower prices, faster Internet speeds and other perks.

Last year, more than 114,000 people signed a White House petition asking the government to get rid of penalties for unlocking cell phones.

Cell phone unlocking was actually legal until last year, when an earlier exemption to copyright laws granted by the Library of Congress, the overseer of the U.S. Copyright Office, expired.

Some carriers have unlocked cell phones for consumers for some time, but the new law will make it easier for consumers to do it themselves or through a third party.

“It’s a positive for consumer choice that you are going to be able to unlock in a variety of ways,” said Christopher Lewis, vice president of government affairs for Public Knowledge, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

President Barack Obama, in a statement Friday, said he looked forward to signing the bill, called the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition 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 cell phone carrier that meets their needs and their budget,” he said.

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