U.S. Senate committee advances bill on cell phone unlocking

Thu Jul 10, 2014 12:27pm EDT

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(Reuters) - The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved bringing before the full Senate legislation that would give mobile-phone users the right to "unlock" their devices and use them on competitors' wireless networks, something that is now technically illegal.

The bill by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat of Vermont, is similar to legislation passed by the House of Representatives in February and is expected to have bipartisan support when it reaches the Senate floor for a vote.

The lawmaking follows a 2012 ruling by the Library of Congress, the minder of U.S. copyright law, that effectively made phone unlocking illegal, even after the consumer completed the contract with its wireless carrier.

U.S. wireless carriers often tether, or "lock," smartphones to their networks to encourage consumers to renew mobile contracts. Consumers, for their part, can often buy new devices at a heavily subsidized price in return for committing to long-term contracts with a single carrier.

In December, major wireless carriers -- including Verizon WirelessN>, AT&T Inc, Sprint Corp and T-Mobile US -- struck a voluntary agreement with the Federal Communications Commission to make it easier for consumers to unlock their phones after their contracts expire.

Under current law, someone who unlocks their phone without permission could face legal ramifications, including jail.

Leahy's bill reinstates the exemption given to mobile phones in the copyright law before the controversial 2012 ruling by the Library of Congress and calls on the officials there to reconsider the issue during its next round of reviews in 2015, potentially expanding the exemption to tablets and other devices.

"We appreciate the Judiciary Committee’s effort to strike an appropriate balance by authorizing unlocking without imposing obligations on carriers," Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs at the wireless industry group CTIA, said in a statement on Thursday.

In addition to allowing consumers to unlock devices themselves, Leahy's bill would allow consumers to authorize someone else to do it for them.

"Enabling consumers to unlock mobile devices will improve competition in the wireless market by making it easier to switch from one carrier to another," Laura Moy, staff attorney at consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said in a statement.

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