Want to unlock your cell phone but afraid of the law? A fix could be on the way.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill today that would let consumers unlock their cell phones. It’s strange that we need a law for this, but, as a reminder, in the United States, it’s considered illegal to unlock a phone tied to a wireless carrier such as Verizon or AT&T and take it to another carrier, no matter how much you’ve paid for it and how long ago your contract expired. Doing so would break the phone’s encryption, and that is considered illegal under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998.

The DMCA provision in question was meant to protect copyright holders from having their digital-rights management software cracked for the purpose of pirating movies and other content. But in 2013, bureaucrats started interpreting the statute to keep people from unlocking their phones in order to use them on another carrier’s network. (In practice, though, wireless carriers are often willing to unlock a phone for you.)

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Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a bill to fix this problem, the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act. But consumer advocates were dismayed by a provision that apparently would have made it illegal to unlock large quantities of phones for bulk resale. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups pointed out that a robust market for used phones can reduce electronic waste and give consumers less-expensive choices.

The Senate bill doesn’t have that provision. George Slover, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, said, “When you buy a cell phone, it should belong to you, and you should be able to carry it over to another network.  This bill would restore your right to unlock your phone and use it with another carrier when the time comes.

The bill also helps open the mobile phone and wireless market to more competition, giving consumers more options to save money and pick a service that serves them best.” It was cosponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the committee, and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee’s ranking member.

On June 23, the House Judiciary Committee issued a statement supporting the Senate bill in general terms, raising hopes that a consumer-friendly law could be enacted this year.

—Jerry Beilinson

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