Bill on unlocked cell phones moves toward passage

By Carol MangisConsumer Reports

A change this past January to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) made it illegal for you to unlock your smart phone without your carrier's permission. That is, if your phone is tethered to Carrier A, you can't "unlock" it on your own so that you can use it with Carrier B.

But the House Judiciary Committee is working on a bill that would, at least temporarily, restore your right to unlock your cell phone for use on another carrier's network. The committee hopes to bring the bill to the House floor for a vote soon.

Continue Reading Below

Before January, the DMCA let you unlock your mobile device. That meant that when your contract expired, you could switch carriers, say to take advantage of better service or lower rates. (Unlocking differs from "jailbreaking," which lets you load the device with the latest OS or delete unwanted bloatware. Jailbreaking an under-contract phone or tablet usually voids the manufacturer's warranty and the carrier's service agreement.)

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes that letting you unlock your phone will save you money, give you greater choice, and help spur increased competition in both the mobile phone and wireless service marketplaces. In a letter to Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary U.S. House of Representatives, Consumers Union asked that these following improvements be considered before the vote:

  • No fine-print loopholes. The right to unlock should not depend on whether the contract with the initial carrier has given you legal ownership of the software inside your mobile phone, or in the contract fine print has given you only a “license” to use the software. Giving the right to unlock only to the "owner of a copy of the program" creates a loophole that could allow the original carrier or the manufacturer of the mobile phone to nullify the right.
  • Cover all consumers. The right to unlock should not be limited to only "purchasers" of the mobile phone. You might have received the phone as a gift or in some other lawful fashion that does not involve money changing hands. 
  • Cover all new phones. The right to unlock should apply to new phones as well as used ones. When you are eligible to obtain a new phone under a wireless contract, you might prefer to keep using the old phone and let someone else use the new one.
  • Cover tablets. The right to unlock should apply to tablets as well as smart phones. You use both devices for the same purposes, and they should be treated the same in relation to those purposes.
  • Make sure you can get help unlocking. You should be able to get help with unlocking your mobile device. To ensure this right, third parties assisting with the unlock must be assured that they are not in legal jeopardy as long as they are acting in good faith to follow the law. They'll need to rely on the your assurance that you are eligible under the law to unlock the device and to obtain assistance.

For more information on issues and regulations that affect all consumers, check Policy and Action.

Copyright © 2005-2013 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.