Leahy, other lawmakers look to legalize cellphone unlocking

Numerous lawmakers, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), said on Tuesday that they want to pass legislation to legalize cellphone unlocking.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was the first to introduce a bill on the topic, formally offering the Wireless Device Independence Act.

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The actions come one day after the White House endorsed cellphone unlocking and said it would support "narrow legislative fixes" to legalize the practice. The White House made its statement in response to an online petition that gathered more than 114,000 signatures.

Unlocking a cellphone allows the owner to switch the device to another company's network. The Librarian of Congress ruled last year that customers must obtain their carrier's permission to unlock their phones, even if their contract has expired.

"I intend to work in a bipartisan, bicameral fashion to restore users’ ability to unlock their phones and provide them with the choice and freedom that we have all come to expect in the digital era,” Leahy said in a statement.

The Judiciary Committee, which handles copyright issues, would likely have jurisdiction over any bill to legalize cellphone unlocking.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who chairs the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, said she plans to introduce her own bill this week.

“Consumers should be free to choose the phone and service that best fits their needs and their budgets," Klobuchar said.

Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) also said during a panel discussion on Capitol Hill that they would support legislation to legalize the practice. 

Although Issa said he is "very, very supportive" of legislation, he cautioned that allowing people to break their contracts could lead to higher priced phones. 

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) tweeted that he is working on cellphone unlocking legislation.

"You own the phone, you should be able to unlock it," he wrote.

The Librarian of Congress based its decision on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which bans people from circumventing a "technological measure" to gain access to a copyrighted work.

The law instructs the Librarian of Congress to grant exemptions to the ban. In 2006 and 2010, the Librarian of Congress exempted cellphone unlocking from the law's restrictions, but the agency decided last year to allow the exemption to expire in January.

The White House does not have direct authority to overturn the decision by the Librarian of Congress, a legislative branch agency.

In its statement, the Obama administration said the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also has an "important role to play." 

Speaking at the Capitol Hill event alongside Issa and Polis, Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called the White House's statement "terrific."

She encouraged Congress to re-examine the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and said the role of the Librarian of Congress in updating the law is something "that might need to get a second look."

CTIA, the wireless industry's lobbying group, has noted that many providers already offer unlocked phones.