This week the Library of Congress approved a bill giving consumers the right to unlock cell phones. This comes almost two years after a law was approved making it illegal to do so.
The bill is called the "Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act," and to take effect it now has to be signed by President Barack Obama.
It seems as though a law making it illegal for users to unlock their phones was never destined to last. In fact, only a month after the law was passed, R. David Edelman, Senior Advisor for the Internet, Innovation and Privacy at the White House said "as far as President Obama was concerned, neither criminal law nor technological locks should prevent consumers from switching carriers when they are no longer bound by a service agreement or other obligation."
Earlier this year the Federal Communications Commission, along with major U.S. carriers, agreed to make it easier for users to unlock their phones. Despite this, the technology itself was still illegal.
"The bipartisan Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act puts consumers first, promotes competition in the wireless phone marketplace, and encourages continued use of existing devices," said Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont lawmaker who authored the bill.
While it will soon be legal for consumers to unlock their devices, that does not mean that anyone can simply go and do so without their carrier's permission. If a user is still under contract for the device that they bought, they will not be able to unlock the phone until the have paid for it in full, unless the carrier gives them permission to do so.
It's also important to remember that as of right now the law only includes cell phones and not tablets, although it is likely tablets will be included sometime in the future.
The law will only officially be in effect until 2015 because of the fact that the Copyright Office reviews the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which this law falls under, every three years. The last time it was reviewed was in 2012. It is unlikely that attitudes towards the law will be changed by then, however it will be subject to political debate.
In response to this, OpenSignal's Sina Khanifar argues that the DMCA is in need of a refresh.
"The fact that public advocacy organizations have to make a fresh case for an unlocking exemption every three years is a perfect example of why the underlying copyright law, Section 1201 of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, is in dire need of an update," said Khanifer in a statement.