Senate Passes Bill to Legalize Cell-Phone Unlocking

The two chambers will now need to agree on one bill.

A Blackberry cell phone is seen at Fixx wireless on November 4, 2013 in Miami, Florida.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Add to Briefcase
Brendan Sasso
July 16, 2014, 6:28 a.m.

The Sen­ate un­an­im­ously ap­proved le­gis­la­tion late Tues­day to leg­al­ize cell-phone un­lock­ing, which would make it easi­er for con­sumers to switch pro­viders without buy­ing a new phone.

The House passed a sim­il­ar bill earli­er this year, but the House ver­sion in­cluded lan­guage to ban people from un­lock­ing phones in large batches. The two cham­bers will now need to agree on a single ver­sion be­fore it heads to the pres­id­ent’s desk.

In a state­ment, Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy urged the House to quickly pass the Sen­ate bill “so that con­sumers will be able to use their ex­ist­ing cell phones on the wire­less car­ri­er of their choice.”

Most con­tract cell phones come “locked” to one net­work. Be­cause of a de­cision by the U.S. Copy­right Of­fice 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 promp­ted an im­me­di­ate pub­lic back­lash, and more than 114,000 people signed a White House pe­ti­tion in protest.

The Un­lock­ing Con­sumer Choice and Wire­less Com­pet­i­tion Act would over­turn the of­fice’s de­cision and would dir­ect the of­fice to con­sider wheth­er to al­low un­lock­ing of oth­er devices, such as tab­lets.

Con­sumer groups such as Pub­lic Know­ledge and the Elec­tron­ic Fron­ti­er Found­a­tion sup­port the Sen­ate bill, al­though they have also pushed for broad­er le­gis­la­tion that would amend the un­der­ly­ing copy­right law.

CTIA, the lob­by­ing group for cell-phone car­ri­ers such as Ve­r­i­zon and AT&T, has backed the bills in both cham­bers. The group ar­gues the is­sue is over­blown but that the le­gis­la­tion would at least “re­lieve con­sumer con­fu­sion.”

Un­der pres­sure from the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion, all the ma­jor car­ri­ers already signed on to a com­mit­ment last year to al­low their cus­tom­ers to un­lock their phones.

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