Senators Will Push to Legalize Cell-Phone Unlocking

Following a House vote earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to take up legislation.

A Blackberry cell phone is seen at Fixx wireless on November 4, 2013 in Miami, Florida.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
June 23, 2014, 9:54 a.m.

The Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee will take up le­gis­la­tion this week to leg­al­ize cell-phone un­lock­ing, which would make it easi­er for con­sumers to switch pro­viders without buy­ing a new phone.

The House passed its own bill earli­er this year to leg­al­ize the prac­tice.

“Con­sumers should be able to use their ex­ist­ing cell phones when they move their ser­vice to a new wire­less pro­vider,” Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy said in a state­ment, an­noun­cing the new bill on the is­sue. “Our laws should not pro­hib­it con­sumers from car­ry­ing their cell phones to a new net­work, and we should pro­mote and pro­tect com­pet­i­tion in the wire­less mar­ket­place.”

Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, the pan­el’s top Re­pub­lic­an, also an­nounced his sup­port for the bill. The Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee is sched­uled to be­gin con­sid­er­a­tion of the le­gis­la­tion Thursday, al­though it will likely post­pone a vote un­til the pan­el’s next meet­ing. 

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.

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.

Jot Car­penter, a lob­by­ist for the cell-phone lob­by­ing group CTIA, said he’s pleased that the Sen­ate bill will al­le­vi­ate “con­sumer con­fu­sion” without “im­pos­ing any ob­lig­a­tions on car­ri­ers.”

Chris Lewis, a lob­by­ist for the ad­vocacy group Pub­lic Know­ledge, said the Sen­ate bill is a good “com­prom­ise,” but ad­ded that he and oth­er ad­voc­ates will con­tin­ue to push for broad­er re­forms. Both the Sen­ate and House bills over­turn the Copy­right Of­fice’s de­cision, but they don’t ad­dress the un­der­ly­ing copy­right law. 

“This is an im­port­ant step that would re­store a right people pre­vi­ously had,” Lewis said.

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