House panel eyes next steps for cellphone unlocking

The House Judiciary Committee could have more to do on the issue of “cellphone unlocking.”

The committee, which has worked on the issue before and is in the middle of a broad review of copyright law, may take up the issue again.

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The Federal Communications Commission announced Thursday that five top cellphone carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular — have reached an agreement that will allow their users to keep their devices when they switch between the five companies’ networks when technologically possible.

Last year, the Library of Congress ruled that cellphones could be legally “unlocked” only with the permission of the carrier. The ruling was met with a wave of consumer backlash, which prompted the White House to come out in favor of cellphone unlocking.

Many in Congress applauded Thursday’s announcement as a significant gain for consumers, but some are saying the agreement isn’t enough.

According to a House Judiciary aide, Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) “welcomes the agreement” and “is in the process of reviewing this agreement and determining if legislation is necessary.”

In a statement, Committee member Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) called the carriers’ agreement a “partial win” for consumers but said, “the process that necessitated the FCC having to take action remains heavily flawed.”

Chaffetz said he would work “with Chairman Goodlatte to help advance legislation that will remove the threat of felony charges for unlocking a cell phone.”

“As the Committee moves forward with its copyright review process, I am committed to working on the broader issue of ownership in a digital age,” he said.

In July, the Judiciary committee passed a bill by Goodlatte that would let users keep their devices as they switch carriers. 

In a statement applauding the carriers’ agreement, the Obama administration called on Congress to act, including on Goodlatte’s bill.

“The FCC and carriers are doing their part,” National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling said in a statement.

“Now it is time for Congress to step up and finish the job by passing the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, which was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee this summer, and its companion in the Senate.” 

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