Bill to Legalize Cell-Phone Unlocking Advances in the Senate

The legislation already passed the House and now heads to the Senate floor.

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
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Brendan Sasso
July 10, 2014, 6:11 a.m.

The Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee voted un­an­im­ously Thursday to ad­vance le­gis­la­tion that would leg­al­ize cell-phone un­lock­ing, which would make it easi­er for con­sumers to switch pro­viders without buy­ing a new phone.

The House passed sim­il­ar le­gis­la­tion earli­er this year.

“Con­sumers should be able to use their ex­ist­ing cell phones when they move their ser­vice to a new wire­less pro­vider,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, the com­mit­tee chair­man and spon­sor of the le­gis­la­tion.

“With today’s strong bi­par­tis­an vote in the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, I hope the full Sen­ate can soon take up this im­port­ant le­gis­la­tion that sup­ports con­sumer rights.”

Most con­tract cell phones come “locked” to one car­ri­er. 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, which is co­sponsored by the com­mit­tee’s top Re­pub­lic­an, Chuck Grass­ley, would over­turn the of­fice’s de­cision. The bill would also 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 bill, al­though they have also pushed for broad­er le­gis­la­tion that would amend the un­der­ly­ing copy­right law.

Un­like the House bill, the Sen­ate le­gis­la­tion leaves out con­tro­ver­sial lan­guage to pro­hib­it people from un­lock­ing phones in large batches. The cel­lu­lar car­ri­ers had lob­bied for the House lan­guage, ar­guing it was im­port­ant to thwart “large-scale” theft op­er­a­tions. But the lan­guage caused many law­makers and ad­vocacy groups to pull their sup­port, say­ing it would cre­ate un­ne­ces­sary bar­ri­ers to switch­ing car­ri­ers.

CTIA, the lob­by­ing group for cell-phone car­ri­ers such as Ve­r­i­zon and AT&T, sup­ports the le­gis­la­tion in both cham­bers.

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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