Cell Phone Freedom Bill FAQ: What You Need to Know

Ever wish you could change mobile carriers on the same mobile device? A new bill would let you do just that. It's called the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, or simply the Cell Phone Freedom Bill. If passed, it'll let consumers "unlock" their mobile phones so they can be used with any mobile carrier they wish.

This bill is generally good for consumers, but it's also controversial. Here's what you need to know about the Cell Phone Freedom Bill.

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What does unlocking a cell phone mean?

Say your two-year cell phone contract with AT&T has expired, but you still want to keep your phone. Previously, you would have had to get a new contract with AT&T, because that was the carrier your phone was attached to. However, if the Cell Phone Freedom Bill is passed, you can legally alter your phone, also called "unlocking," to let it work with any other mobile carrier you wish.

The bill just narrowly passed the House of Representatives, and will now move to the Senate for further consideration.

So I can unlock my phone now?

It's possible, but not advisable. This is still a bill, not a law, so it has yet to be passed, much less go into effect. Currently, it is considered illegal to unlock your cell phone, though many say the law is ambiguous.

Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it illegal to circumvent "technical protection measures" of digital products. This mainly applies to breaking digital rights management (DRM) software for pirating purposes, but because unlocking a phone means altering the phone's software, many argue that section 1201 makes it illegal to unlock a phone.

In 2009 the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress granted an exemption to section 1201 which did make it legal to unlock a cell phone. These exemptions are reviewed every three years, and in 2012 the Office chose not to renew this exemption.

Thus, as of January 27, 2013 it is illegal to unlock one's cell phone. That's where the Cell Phone Freedom Bill comes in. Note: You can purchase some Android phones as unlocked, including the Google Nexus 5.

Is this bill good for consumers like me?

Yes. However, it could have been better. Earlier drafts of the bill allowed "bulk unlocking," such as companies who would specialize in reselling unlocked phones and helping consumers unlock their phones. However, a last-minute change to the bill removed any mention of bulk unlocking. This caused a number of Democrats to withdraw support for the bill, arguing that by not outright stating that bulk unlocking was legal, the bill implied that it was illegal. 

"The last-minute change that was made in this bill...puts a real poison pill in this bill for consumer advocates," Representative Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who withdrew his support of the bill, said in a statement to the congressional news blog The Hill. "Many consumers won't be unlocking their phones themselves. There needs to be a market in unlocking phones."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which opposes Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and has been lobbying to make cell phone unlocking legal for years now, goes even further: "By expressly excluding [bulk unlocking], this new legislation sends two dangerous signals: 1) that Congress is OK with using copyright as an excuse to inhibit certain business models...and (2) that Congress still doesn't understand the collateral damage Section 1201 is causing," EFF's Intellectual Property Director Corynne McSherry wrote on the foundation's website.

Republicans who support the bill point out that it doesn't expressly forbid bulk unlocking, and argue that it's important to get a law permitting cell phone unlocking on the books as soon as possible.

What happens now?

The bill narrowly passed in the House of Representatives. Under special rules, it needed a two-thirds majority, and ultimately ended up passing 295 votes to 114, with 95 Democrats voting in favor.

Now the bill goes to the Senate, where it will undergo another round of edits and debates. It's possible that Senate Democrats will amend the bill to re-include permission for bulk unlocking, but only time will tell.

Email jscharr@techmedianetwork.com or follow her @JillScharr and Google+.  Follow us @TomsGuide, on Facebook and on Google+.

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