Todd Shields Washington

Smartphone owners in the US may unlock the devices to switch cellular carriers after service contracts expire under a law passed by Congress on Friday that is headed for President Barack Obama’s desk.

The measure reverses a 2012 ruling by the Librarian of Congress that said unlocking phones violated copyrights. Unlocking is done by entering a software code so that a smartphone can connect to a different network.

A Senate bill that would legalise unlocking passed the House of Representatives without a recorded vote. That sent the measure to Obama, who said he looked “forward to signing this bill”. Obama called the measure “another step toward giving ordinary Americans more flexibility and choice”.

The developments complete a drama that included the librarian’s 2012 decision, at the urging of wireless carriers, that unlocking phones amounted to a copyright violation. More than 114 000 people endorsed an internet petition to the White House opposing that finding.

The Obama administration expressed support for the petition, saying that criminal law and technological locks should not keep consumers from switching carriers if not bound by a service agreement.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler said in November last year that the agency would write regulations if the industry did not act, and wireless carriers led by Verizon Communications and AT&T said in December that they would let consumers unlock phones after their contracts expired.

The new bill “gives consumers the ability to pick another wireless service without having to give up a perfectly good, working phone”, George Slover, a senior policy counsel for advocacy group Consumers Union, said. – Bloomberg