Cell Phone Unlocking Bill Draws Broad Support

A bill that would allow consumers to “unlock” their cell phones drew support on Thursday from groups as diverse as a wireless trade association and a consumer watchdog.

The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act (H.R. 1123), introduced in March by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), makes clear that people who unlock wireless devices aren't violating copyright law. The law, if enacted, would reverse a Librarian of Congress decision that took effect in January. But the bill would sunset in 2015, when the Librarian of Congress again examines the issue.

On Thursday, representatives from the watchdog group Consumers Union, as well as the industry group CTIA-The Wireless Association, testified at a hearing that they support Goodlatte's proposal.

“Consumers should be able to use the mobile devices they have purchased as they see fit,” Consumers Union policy counsel George Slover said in his written testimony.

The CTIA said that it believes the Librarian of Congress's decision rests “on solid legal ground,” but nonetheless supports Goodlatte's proposal. “Enactment of H.R. 1123 should alleviate consumer confusion about whether unlocking his or her wireless phone will subject them to possible criminal penalties,” the organization said in its testimony.

Unlocking cell phones allows them to be used on any compatible network, not simply the network the phone was originally bundled with. People who purchase used phones, or who travel abroad, often want to unlock the devices.

Currently, people who unlock phones do so by tinkering with the digital rights management software that comes with the devices. But circumventing that type of software potentially is a crime under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Every three years, the Librarian of Congress issues exceptions to the anti-circumvention provisions that forbid removing digital locks. In the past, the Copyright Office granted an exemption that allowed people to unlock cell phones. But last year, the authorities decided to allow the exemption to expire. The result is that people who unlock cell phones now face the threat of criminal prosecution.

While no one at the hearing opposed Goodlatte's bill, some advocates say it doesn't go far enough. The digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation has thrown its support behind a different bill, proposed by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.).

That measure allows people to remove any digital locks on software, provided that people who do so aren't also infringing copyright. Lofgren's bill would explicitly legalize a host of activity that's arguably illegal now, including removing digital locks to transfer the contents of DVDs to tablets.
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