Congress Whips Up Laws to Legalize Cell Phone Unlocking

Response to White House petition should help consumers switch phone carriers

When the Internet speaks, Congress jumps. Only days after the White House came out in support of a White House petition to legalize cell phone unlocking, a number of lawmakers have taken up the cause and introduced legislation.

No fewer than two bills were introduced in the Senate, and a number of lawmakers in both chambers and political parties have spoken out in favor of new laws to fix a decision made in January by the Library of Congress that requires consumers to obtain permission from carriers in order to legally unlock their phones (in other words, to switch carriers). Consumers that illegally unlock phones could be forced to pay a $500,000 fine and get five years in prison.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), three members of the Senate Judiciary committee, introduced Thursday the Wireless Consumer Choice Act, which gives the Federal Communications Commission the authority to ensure consumers can switch carriers. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) will introduce the House version.

"Consumers should have flexibility and choice when it comes to their wireless service and they deserve to keep and use cell phones they have already purchased," Klobuchar said in a statement. Klobuchar is chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust, competition policy and consumer rights committee, which has jurisdiction over copyright issues.

Other lawmakers are also working on the issue. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced Wednesday the Wireless Device Independence Act making cell phone unlocking legal.

The bills followed the White House response to a petition to make cell phone unlocking legal after the petition reached more than 114,000 signatures. 

Petitioners argued that consumers should be able to switch to any mobile carrier they want without risk of criminal or other penalties. The White House agreed, writing that it would support "a range of approaches to addressing" the issue, including "narrow legislative fixes."

The FCC said it was looking into the issue. "From a communications policy perspective, this raises serious competition and innovation concerns, and for wireless consumers, it doesn't pass the common sense test," said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, in a statement. "I also encourage Congress to take a close look and consider a legislative solution."