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Friday, July 25, 2014, 02:11 pm PT (05:11 pm ET)

Cellular device unlocking bill passed by US House, President Obama says will sign into law

After passing through U.S. Senate last week, the House of Representatives on Friday cleared a bill regarding cellphone and tablet owners' rights to unlock their hardware for use on a different carrier's network.




The U.S. House signed off on Senate Bill 517, a proposed law that would enable cellular device users to unlock their hardware and switch to a competing carrier without penalty, something that is currently illegal. The Senate pushed the bill through last week.

Following successfully passage through Congress, President Barack Obama needs to sign the piece of legislation into law, which he will do shortly, according to a White House release.

From President Obama:
I applaud Members of Congress for passing the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act. Last year, in response to a "We the People" petition from consumers across our country, my Administration called for allowing Americans to use their phones or mobile devices on any network they choose. We laid out steps the FCC, industry, and Congress should take to ensure copyright law does not undermine wireless competition, and worked with wireless carriers to reach a voluntary agreement that helps restore this basic consumer freedom. 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. I commend Chairmen Leahy and Goodlatte, and Ranking Members Grassley and Conyers for their leadership on this important consumer issue and look forward to signing this bill into law.

President Obama's comments came in an emailed update on a "We the People" petition signed by more than 114,000 people, who asked the administration to "restore a basic consumer freedom: to take your mobile service — and a phone or tablet you already own — to the carrier that best suits your needs."

The contents of S.517 effectively overturns a prior decision from the Librarian of Congress, who in 2012 dissolved an exemption in the Digital Millennium Copyrights Act (DMCA) that allowed cellphones to be unlocked. After a 90-day buffer period, the DMCA stipulation went into effect in January 2013.

Interestingly, S.517 fails to limit so-called "bulk unlocking," or the practice of unlocking multiple phones, tablets and other devices for resale purposes. An earlier version saw the House tac on a clause that prohibited bulk unlocking, though the final draft being sent to the White House contains no mention of the stipulation.

Cellular service providers "lock" phones and other devices they sell to their proprietary network in an effort to thwart customer flight to a competing carrier's service. Providers used the method to ensure continuing subscription revenue from customers who purchased subsidized hardware.