Wireless industry to back cellphone unlocking bill

A cellphone industry official plans to tell a House panel on Thursday that his group supports legislation to legalize cellphone unlocking.

Mike Altschul, general counsel of wireless industry group CTIA, will testify that a House unlocking bill is a "reasonable balance that protects consumers and carriers alike."

"Because we were not seeking to limit individuals’ non-commercial ability to unlock their devices, and because the bill preserves the important limitations against bulk unlocking included in the Librarian’s 2010 decision, CTIA can support H.R. 1123," Altschul will say at the hearing of the House Judiciary Committee's intellectual property subcommittee, according to a copy of his prepared remarks.

ADVERTISEMENT
CTIA represents all of the major cellular carriers, including Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile.

Most contract phones come "locked" to one carrier. Because of a Library of Congress decision last year, customers must obtain their carrier’s permission to legally unlock their phones even after they have completed their contract.

The decision was based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which bans people from circumventing a "technological measure" to gain access to a copyrighted work. The Library had exempted cellphone unlocking from the DMCA's restrictions in 2006 and 2010.

CTIA had lobbied the Library not to expand the unlocking exemption, warning it could promote illegal phone trafficking and allow people to free-ride on subsidized phones.

The Library's ban prompted consumer outrage, a petition on the White House website with more than 114,000 signatures and a flurry of bills to legalize the practice. 

Supporters of cellphone unlocking argue that people should not need to buy a new phone to switch carriers. They say legalizing the practice would boost competition and provide more choices for consumers. 

H.R. 1123, the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, would repeal the library's decision, but would not affect any other law. The bill was introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has sponsored companion legislation in the upper chamber.

Altschul will call the bill "narrowly tailored and appropriate to alleviating consumer confusion that may have arisen as a result of the Librarian’s most recent decision." 

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and other lawmakers have sponsored a more aggressive bill that would amend the DMCA to permanently legalize cellphone unlocking.