Another phone unlocking bill has emerged on Capitol Hill, with Judiciary Committee members from both chambers joining forces to allow users to unlock their devices without carrier permission.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy and Democratic Senate colleague Al Franken, as well as Republicans Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, and Mike Lee unveiled the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act yesterday. In the House, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Ranking Member John Conyers are backing companion legislation.
“Right now, folks who decide to change cellphone carriers are frequently forced to buy a new phone or risk the possibility of criminal penalties, and that’s just not fair for consumers,” Franken said in a statement.
The bill reverses a decision from the Library of Congress’s Copyright Office, which made cell phone unlocking illegal back in January. The LOC is required to revisit certain copyright issues (like unlocking and jailbreaking) every three years as part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and this year, it found that carriers now provide users with enough options to unlock their devices. As a result, those users now need their carrier’s permission before unlocking a phone.
The move prompted a White House petition, which topped the 100,000 e-signatures needed for an official administration response. The White House said it backed a user’s right to unlock their cell phone, and called on Congress and the FCC to make it a reality.
“This straightforward restoring bill is about promoting consumer rights,” Sen. Leahy said in a statement. “When consumers finish the terms of their contract, they should be able to keep their phones and make their own decision about which wireless provider to use.”
“It just makes sense that cell phone users should be able to do what they want with their phones after satisfying their initial service contract,” Sen. Hatch said. “This bill reinstates that ability, while also ensuring that copyrights are not violated.”
Similar bills have been introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Ron Wyden, both Democrats, as well as Rep. Anna Eshoo in the House.
At a hearing about FCC oversight today, Sen. Klobuchar questioned the commissioners about the unlocking issue, and Chairman Julius Genachowski committed to working with Klobuchar to take action on cell phone unlocking, Klobuchar’s office said.
“Consumers deserve to keep cell phones they have already purchased no matter what carrier they decide to use,” Klobuchar said. “That’s why I’ve introduced legislation to allow consumers to unlock their phones and I will continue to work with the FCC to get this done and give consumers the choice and flexibility they need and deserve.”
The author of the White House petition, however, is hoping that Congress will take a harder look at the DMCA rather than simply making cell phone unlocking legal. Sina Khanifar launched a new site, FixTheDMCA.org, that takes aim at Section 1201 of the law, which has drawn support from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Y Combinator, iFixit, Reddit, Mozilla, and the Internet Archive, among others.
Khanifar suggested that the Leahy-Goodlatte bill will have the most traction because of their roles as chairmen of the Judiciary Committees. But “at best [the bill] is a very temporary fix to an ongoing problem,” he said.
By 2015, the LOC could just vote to ban unlocking once again, while the bills don’t address Section 1201 of the DMCA, he said. By fixing Section 1201, Congress could make cell phone unlocking, jailbreaking, screen-reading sofware for the blind, and software and hardware modifications permanently legal, FixTheDMCA.org argues, rather than subject to review every few years.