Senate bill would legalize cellphone unlocking

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“Consumers should have flexibility and choice when it comes to their wireless service and they deserve to keep and use cell phones they have already purchased,” Klobuchar said in a statement.

Lee argued that consumers "shouldn't have to fear criminal charges if they want to unlock their cell phones and switch carriers."

Blumenthal said the bill "is common sense, crucial for protecting consumer choice, and important for ensuring healthy competition in the market.”

The three senators all serve on the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over copyright issues. Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has said he wants to work with other lawmakers to legalize cellphone unlocking.

Klobuchar and Blumenthal also serve on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over the FCC.

Earlier this week, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced a separate bill on the issue, the Wireless Device Independence Act. Unlike the Wireless Consumer Choice Act, Wyden's legislation would not give the FCC authority over the issue.

The White House endorsed cellphone unlocking on Monday in response to an online petition that gathered more than 114,000 signatures. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski also came out in favor of legalizing the practice.

Since January, customers have had to obtain their carriers' permission to legally unlock their phones because of a decision by the Librarian of Congress.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) 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 wireless industry persuaded the agency to allow the exemption to expire.

CTIA, the wireless industry's lobbying group, argues that carriers already sell many unlocked phones and are often willing to unlock phones at their customers' request.

Christopher Lewis, the top lobbyist for consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, applauded the lawmakers for introducing legislation to empower consumers, but he said the root of the problem is vague provisions of the copyright law.

"Amending the DMCA itself will ensure stronger competition, and also that consumers can use the devices they've bought in whatever lawful way they choose," he said.