Wide Support for Mobile Phone Unlocking Bill

     WASHINGTON (CN) – A bill that would let consumers unlock their cellphones from contract carriers received support on both sides of the aisle at a House subcommittee hearing Thursday.
     Most contract phones are locked to one wireless carrier. In 2010, the Library of Congress adopted a rule that forces consumers to get permission from their carrier before unlocking the phones to be used on another network – even after their contracts have expired.
     Copyright law established by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which prohibits gaining access to copyrighted material by circumventing a technological measure, served as the basis for the rule.
     The Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet, which falls under the umbrella of the House Judiciary Committee, heard testimony on reversing that rule through the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act.
     Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., introduced the bill, which received praise from both members of Congress and the witnesses, who called for its swift enactment.
     “[The Library of Congress’ decision] is like having a cake that you don’t want your teenager to eat, but instead of telling him he can’t eat the cake, you tell him he’s grounded for life if he even steps foot in the kitchen,” said George Slover, senior policy consultant of the Consumers Union.
     Slover added that unlocking cellphones or other mobile devices creates increased competition and will give cellphone access to lesser privileged communities.
     One witness who also called for swift adoption of the bill also warned that it could open the door to crime.
     “Continuing the prohibition on bulk unlocking makes our streets just a little bit safer by making it harder for large scale phone trafficking syndicates to operate in the open and buy large quantities of phones, unlock them and resell them in foreign markets where carriers do not offer subsidized handsets,” said Michael Altschul, senior vice president and general counsel of CTIA – The Wireless Association.
     “Making it illegal to unlock devices without carrier consent adds another barrier to these fencing operations and may help dry up the demand for stolen phones,” he added.
     Altschul said the wireless industry nevertheless supports the bill because it “preserves the important limitations against bulk unlocking.”
     Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Slover and Competitive Carriers Association President Steven Berry argued for more aggressive measures, calling for the bill to encompass tablets and other mobile devices and for a more permanent legalization of cellphone unlocking.
     Steven Metalitz, counsel to Joint Creators and Copyright Owners, told subcommittee members that the federal Copyright Office has taken a neutral stance to the 2010 Library of Congress decision.
     If Congress decides that it needs to change the policy, however, the bill is “an appropriate and well-considered way to change it,” Metalitz added.
     Reps. Mel Watt, D-N.C. and John Conyers, D-Mich., expressed their support of the bill because it will allow people access to a market for secondary phones. GOP members feigned shock at Conyers’ unwillingness to make an opening statement after agreeing with the statements of Goodlatte and Watt.

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