Bill to Legalize Cell-Phone Unlocking Set for House Vote

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
Feb. 25, 2014, midnight

The House is ex­pec­ted to vote on le­gis­la­tion Tues­day that would make it easi­er for people to switch cel­lu­lar pro­viders without buy­ing a new phone.

Un­der cur­rent law, people who “un­lock” their phones to switch pro­viders could face thou­sands of dol­lars in fines and — if they tried to profit from the device — even jail time.

H.R. 1123, the Un­lock­ing Con­sumer Choice and Wire­less Com­pet­i­tion Act, had broad bi­par­tis­an sup­port when it cleared the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee by a voice vote last year. But two Sil­ic­on Val­ley Demo­crats, Zoe Lof­gren and Anna Eshoo, are now mount­ing a last-minute bid to kill the le­gis­la­tion, say­ing the latest ver­sion doesn’t go far enough to pro­tect con­sumers.

Be­cause the bill is be­ing brought to the floor un­der an ex­ped­ited pro­cess, it will need a two-thirds vote to pass.

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 (DMCA), 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.

Sup­port­ers of cell-phone un­lock­ing say it pro­motes com­pet­i­tion and that con­sumers should be able to do what they want with the devices they own.

Last year, Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion 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.

H.R. 1123, which is au­thored by Re­pub­lic­an House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte, would over­turn the lib­rary’s de­cision and leg­al­ize cell-phone un­lock­ing.

But the latest ver­sion of Good­latte’s bill would not pro­tect people who un­lock phones in large batches. That pro­vi­sion promp­ted con­sumer-ad­vocacy groups Pub­lic Know­ledge and the Elec­tron­ic Fron­ti­er Found­a­tion to drop their sup­port. Those groups had al­ways pre­ferred le­gis­la­tion that would amend the un­der­ly­ing copy­right law in­stead of simply over­turn­ing the lib­rary’s de­cision.

Reps. Lof­gren and Eshoo began ral­ly­ing op­pos­i­tion to the bill on Monday and ac­cused Good­latte of adding the pro­vi­sion in “secret.”

“We urge a no vote on the Un­lock­ing Con­sumer Choice Act (H.R.1123) so that, in the fu­ture, we can de­vel­op con­sensus for le­gis­la­tion that provides real pro­tec­tion for con­sumers, pro­motes com­pet­i­tion, and un­locks in­nov­a­tion,” they wrote in a let­ter to oth­er law­makers.

But the bill still has sup­port from top Demo­crats in­clud­ing Rep. John Con­yers, the rank­ing mem­ber of the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, and Jer­rold Nadler, the rank­ing mem­ber of the in­tel­lec­tu­al prop­erty sub­com­mit­tee.

Aman­da Walk­er, a spokes­wo­man for Good­latte, said the bill is still ex­pec­ted to reach the floor on Tues­day des­pite the last-ditch op­pos­i­tion. 

CTIA, the lob­by­ing as­so­ci­ation for cel­lu­lar car­ri­ers, is quick to note that un­lock­ing a phone does not mean it will op­er­ate on any net­work. Tech­no­lo­gic­al bar­ri­ers could still pre­vent some cus­tom­ers from switch­ing their devices between cer­tain net­works.

What We're Following See More »
HEALTH IN QUESTION
Sen. Cochran Back to Washington Tuesday
5 hours ago
THE LATEST
THIRD VERSION OF THE BAN
Federal Judge Temporarily Stops Trump’s Travel Ban
6 hours ago
THE LATEST

"A federal district court in Hawaii has temporarily blocked the third iteration of President Trump's travel ban. Judge Derrick Watson said the new targeted restrictions on travel from eight countries Trump issued on Sept. 24 suffers the same problems as the previous order."

Source:
FORMER ELI LILLY EXEC
Trump Leaning Towards Alex Azar for HHS
6 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"President Donald Trump is leaning toward nominating Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical industry executive and George W. Bush administration official, to serve as Health and Human Services secretary, according to two White House officials...Azar is a veteran of HHS. He served as the department’s general counsel and deputy secretary during the Bush administration." He led Eli Lilly's U.S. operations from 2012-17.

Source:
ENOUGH SUPPORT TO PASS?
Senators Reach Bipartisan ACA Deal
7 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Sen. Lamar Alexander says he and Sen. Patty Murray have reached a deal to fund the Affordable Care Act's cost-sharing subsidies in exchange for giving states more regulatory flexibility with the law." Axios is watching to see if the deal will gather support.

Source:
INDEX UP MORE THAN 20% SINCE ELECTION
Dow Jones Hits 23,000 Threshold
9 hours ago
THE DETAILS
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login