House Judiciary Committee approves cellphone unlocking bill

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved a bill by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) that lets people unlock their cellphones. 

Goodlatte's bill, which the committee approved by a voice vote, would allow people to switch wireless carriers without having to purchase a new phone. Under the measure, people would be able to access another mobile carrier's wireless network on their cellphone without having to get permission from their original wireless provider first. 

In statement, Goodlatte said the bill "protects consumer choice by allowing consumers flexibility when it comes to choosing a wireless carrier."

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"This is something that Americans have been asking for and it is imperative that Congress act to restore the exemption that allowed consumers to unlock their cell phone," said Goodlatte, who chairs the Judiciary Committee. 

Supporters of cellphone unlocking argue that people should be able to use their same mobile device even if they switch carriers. 

Before the vote, Judiciary Committee members sparred over an amendment from Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) that proposed to let certain third parties—such as family members or people not affiliated with the wireless network provider—help a cellphone owner unlock their phone.

Reps. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) voiced concern with the amendment, arguing that it strayed from the original scope of the bill. The Democratic lawmakers said the committee had not done enough study on the amendment and needed to take more time to understand whether it would result in negative implications.

Watt, in particular, argued that the Chaffetz-Lofgren amendment may "facilitate a theft market" and bolster the operations of criminals who steal cellphones. He said BSA | The Software Alliance had voiced the concerns to him about the amendment.

"If I were in the theft market of cellphones, I would go and steal a locked cellphone. I wouldn't want to go to a carrier [to unlock it]…I would want to go to some fly by night person off somewhere," Watt said. "I think we're able to facilitate a theft market that we have not anticipated, and that's the kind of thing I think we need to be studying the implications of before we take this step."

Conyers, the top Democrat on the committee, echoed that argument. He said songwriters and representatives from the movie and software industries had expressed concern with the measure.

"We are now going into areas that were not considered in the original contemplation of the bill, which I think most of us were in support of," Conyers said.

Chaffetz fought back against those claims and called Watt's theft comparison "absurd." The amendment, the Utah Republican declared, "is not a gateway for theft for anybody."

"Should I be allowed to have my wife unlock my phone? Of course," Chaffetz said.

"It's ridiculous to suggest, and it's offensive to suggest, that this is going to create an industry of theft," he added. "It is unlocking your phone."

Goodlatte said Chaffetz's amendment would be beneficial for people who live in rural areas and don't live within driving distance of a wireless store. He said the amendment would allow people in rural areas to get help with unlocking their cellphones even if they can't visit a wireless company's store. 

"They want to be able to do this. This is a step forward for American consumers," he said.

The Chaffetz-Lofgren amendment was ultimately adopted to the manager's amendment. The only two Democrats that supported it were Lofgren and Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington.

The Judiciary panel also adopted Goodlatte's manager's amendment to the bill. It includes a provision that directs the Librarian of Congress to determine whether the cellphone unlocking exception should be applied to other wireless devices.

Goodlatte's cellphone unlocking bill would reverse a Library of Congress decision made last year. It requires customers to obtain their carrier's permission to legally unlock their phone after their wireless contract is finished. 

The decision was based on a measure from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which bans people from circumventing a "technological measure" to gain access to a copyrighted work.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has introduced a companion bill in the upper chamber. 

Brendan Sasso contributed