Senate panel approves cellphone ‘unlocking’ bill

A Senate panel on Thursday advanced legislation to allow people to “unlock” their cellphones and switch from one carrier like AT&T or Verizon to another. 

The Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the bill, which now heads to the Senate floor.

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“Consumers should be able to use their existing cellphones when they move their service to a new wireless provider,” Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a statement after the vote.

“With today’s strong bipartisan vote in the Judiciary Committee, I hope the full Senate can soon take up this important legislation that supports consumer rights,” he added. 

Wireless companies and public interest groups alike had backed the bipartisan legislation, which follows a similar bill passed by the House last year

CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group that includes AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and other carriers, had kind words for lawmakers after the Thursday morning vote.

“We appreciate the Judiciary Committee’s effort to strike an appropriate balance by authorizing unlocking without imposing obligations on carriers,” vice president of government affairs Jot Carpenter said in a statement.

In addition to cellphones, the Judiciary Committee’s bill also calls for the Librarian of Congress to decide whether tablets and other wireless devices need legislation to be unlocked. The bill also allows people to get help unlocking their phone from someone else, which lawmakers said would be helpful for consumers without the technologic know-how to do it themselves.

Unlike the House bill, however, the Senate legislation does not explicitly prohibit people from unlocking phones for “bulk resale,” which companies have said would encourage phone theft.  

The bill comes on the heels of a 2012 decision by the Librarian of Congress declaring that people who unlock their phones to switch carriers violate copyright law.

That led to a harsh public backlash. More than 114,000 people signed a White House petition to allow subscribers to switch their phones between one company and another. In response, the Obama administration said that it supported new legislation to reverse the decision.

Last year, companies agreed to voluntary deals to let people switch networks on their phones when technologically feasible.