House Passes Cell-Phone Unlocking Bill

Lawmakers override last-minute opposition.

A picture taken on October 12, 2011 in the French western city of Rennes shows (FromL) a Samsung phone, a Blackberry phone and an Iphone 4.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Feb. 25, 2014, 3:31 p.m.

The House voted 295 to 114 on Tues­day to ap­prove a bill to leg­al­ize cell-phone un­lock­ing, which would make it easi­er for con­sumers to switch pro­viders without buy­ing a new phone.

But sup­port­ers had to over­ride last-minute op­pos­i­tion or­gan­ized by Reps. Zoe Lof­gren and Anna Eshoo. The Sil­ic­on Val­ley Demo­crats blas­ted the bill’s au­thor, House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte, for adding a pro­vi­sion ahead of the vote that would keep the ban in place for bulk un­lock­ing. That pro­vi­sion has the sup­port of CTIA, the lob­by­ing as­so­ci­ation for cell-phone ser­vice pro­viders.

The le­gis­la­tion nar­rowly achieved the two-thirds sup­port it needed to pass the House un­der the ex­ped­ited pro­ced­ure.

Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Chair­man Patrick Leahy has in­tro­duced his own un­lock­ing bill, but an aide said he won’t ne­ces­sar­ily sup­port the House lan­guage on bulk un­lock­ing.

Most con­tract cell phones come “locked” to one car­ri­er. Be­cause of a de­cision by the Lib­rary of Con­gress in 2012, cus­tom­ers must ob­tain their car­ri­er’s per­mis­sion to leg­ally un­lock their phones to switch to a com­pet­it­or — even after they have com­pleted their con­tract.

The de­cision was based on the Di­git­al Mil­len­ni­um Copy­right Act, which bans people from cir­cum­vent­ing a “tech­no­lo­gic­al meas­ure” to gain ac­cess to a copy­righted work. The lib­rary had ex­emp­ted cell-phone un­lock­ing from the DMCA’s re­stric­tions in 2006 and 2010.

The lib­rary’s 2012 de­cision to ban cell-phone un­lock­ing promp­ted an im­me­di­ate pub­lic back­lash, and more than 114,000 people signed a White House pe­ti­tion in protest.

“The bi­par­tis­an Un­lock­ing Con­sumer Choice and Wire­less Com­pet­i­tion Act pro­tects con­sumer choice by al­low­ing con­sumers flex­ib­il­ity when it comes to choos­ing a wire­less car­ri­er,” Good­latte said in a state­ment.

But con­sumer groups Pub­lic Know­ledge and the Elec­tron­ic Fron­ti­er Found­a­tion pulled their sup­port after Good­latte ad­ded the pro­vi­sion to pro­hib­it people from un­lock­ing phones in large batches.

Ac­cord­ing to a Lof­gren aide, Good­latte re­jec­ted com­prom­ise lan­guage that would have cla­ri­fied that the bill neither per­mits nor pro­hib­its bulk un­lock­ing.

Jot Car­penter, vice pres­id­ent of gov­ern­ment af­fairs for CTIA, said in a state­ment that the lib­rary has banned bulk un­lock­ing since 2010.

“Ex­cept for those en­gaged in large-scale sub­sidy ar­bit­rage or fen­cing stolen devices, this should not be con­tro­ver­sial, nor should it in any way im­pair an in­di­vidu­al’s abil­ity to un­lock his or her device at the com­ple­tion of a term of ser­vice or soon­er ac­cord­ing to in­di­vidu­al car­ri­er prac­tices,” he said.

Even without le­gis­la­tion, the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion has already ac­ted to en­sure that most people can un­lock their phones.

Last year, FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er pres­sured the car­ri­ers to sign on to a new un­lock­ing policy. Un­der the threat of new reg­u­la­tions, the ma­jor pro­viders all agreed to un­lock their cus­tom­ers’ phones upon re­quest.

But the new policy doesn’t pro­tect con­sumers who want to un­lock their phones on their own. People who want to tinker with their devices could still face steep fines un­der the cur­rent law.

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