Senate Committee Approves Bill To Make Cellphone Unlocking Legal Again



The world has moved forward one small but important step in the path toward once again making it legal for consumers to unlock their cellphones without permission from their current wireless carrier, after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation that would restore that right to Americans.

To remind y’all of how we got into this mess: The Librarian of Congress has the ability to reinterpret the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act. For years, the DMCA made it pretty clear that consumers who were bought their phones outright or who were no longer under contract with their wireless provider could unlock those devices and take them to other carriers.

But this didn’t please the wireless industry, which argued that consumers never really own their phones because the software that runs those devices is licensed via the wireless provider. Thus, the user should have to get permission in order to unlock the phone.

Contrary to all common sense, the LOC fell for this argument and determined in late 2012 that, for any new phones purchased after Jan. 25, 2013, it would be illegal to unlock the device without permission.

While virtually no one noticed when the change to DMCA was made, they noticed after the change went into effect. The backlash came from consumers, advocates, the then-chairman of the FCC, the White House, and legislators.

Eventually, under pressure from the FCC and the Commerce Dept., the wireless industry instituted voluntary guidelines intended to make unlocking easier.

However, these rules are purely voluntary and do nothing to restore the legal right to unlock one’s device without involving their wireless carrier.

Earlier this year, identical bills were introduced in the House and Senate that would override the Librarian of Congress’s decision and make unlocking legal.

A version of the bill was approved by the House in February, but along the way someone added language that appears to limit the unlocking of phones to individuals and leaves open the door to future DMCA restrictions on bulk unlocking.

This new language caused some advocacy groups to pull their support for the bill, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation saying a company could use “copyright as an excuse to inhibit certain business models, even if the business isn’t actually infringing anyone’s copyright.”

The bill reviewed by the Judiciary Committee today did not include this language, and currently has the support of groups, like our colleagues at Consumers Union.

“When you buy a cellphone, it should belong to you, and you should be able to carry it over to another network,” explains George Slover, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union. “This bill would restore your right to unlock your phone and use it with another carrier when the time comes. This bill helps open the mobile phone and wireless market to more competition, giving consumers more options to save money and pick a service that serves them best.”

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