A petition on the White House's We The People website recently asked the government to change a new rule that makes it illegal to unlock a cell phone, even after a contract with the carrier is expired.
An unlocked cell phone is one that you fully own and can be used with another carrier. A locked cell phone—typically one bought in conjunction with a long-term contract—is still under the control of the carrier that sold it to you.
People unlock phones for many reasons. A common one is wanting to temporarily switch to an overseas carrier when traveling internationally. If your carrier doesn't agree to unlock your phone, you can't do that.
The rule went into effect on January 26, the doing of the Librarian of Congress last October. (The Library of Congress oversees copyright rules, and for obscure technical and legal reasons, the locking of cell phones falls under copyright law.)
In an odd twist, that same ruling found that unlocking your iPad was fine.
Last week, after the petition reached the required 100,000 signatures, the White House responded, agreeing that Congress should fix the law. It said the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) might also get involved.
Since then, Congress has come up with a number of proposals.
Unfortunately, the bill that's looking likely to pass right now is awful, advocates say. Introduced in the Senate last night, it's called the "Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Consumer Act" ( PDF link).
It doesn't solve the problem. More than that, the bill actually says that it's designed to be useless. It tells the Librarian of Congress that for the next three years, unlocking a paid-for phone will be okay in some circumstances. The old rule about unlocking from 2010 will be put back in place.
But, in 2015, the Librarian is free to change the rule back again.
What advocates really want is a law that is that makes unlocking a paid-for cell phone or tablet permanently legal. The White House agrees with this position.
As of today, it's not looking good that Congress will actually get that job done.
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