Leahy, other lawmakers look to legalize cellphone unlocking

Numerous lawmakers, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyCongress should build on the momentum from spending bill Overnight Tech: Zuckerberg grilled by lawmakers over data scandal | What we learned from marathon hearing | Facebook hit with class action lawsuit | Twitter endorses political ad disclosure bill | Uber buys bike share Overnight Cybersecurity: Zuckerberg faces grilling in marathon hearing | What we learned from Facebook chief | Dems press Ryan to help get Russia hacking records | Top Trump security adviser resigning MORE (D-Vt.), said on Tuesday that they want to pass legislation to legalize cellphone unlocking.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Cybersecurity: DHS cyber nominee vows to make election security 'top priority' | CIA to allow lawmakers to review classified info on Haspel | Dems raise security concerns about Trump's phone use CIA will allow senators to review classified material on Haspel Senators debate new business deduction, debt in tax law hearing MORE (D-Ore.) was the first to introduce a bill on the topic, formally offering the Wireless Device Independence Act.

ADVERTISEMENT
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 KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharGOP moves to cut debate time for Trump nominees Budowsky: End the DNC malpractice GOP advances proposal to change Senate rules MORE (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 ChaffetzJason ChaffetzIngraham’s ratings spike a wake-up for advertisers Boehner to campaign for House GOP candidates Americans want to protect public lands, Congress should listen MORE (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.