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Congressional hearing finds broad agreement on the right to unlock smartphones

Advocates for both industry and consumers voiced their support for a bill that would restore the right to unlock cellphones in the U.S. today at a hearing in front of a congressional subcommittee.

A 2012 decision by the Librarian of Congress not to renew a long-standing exception to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act -- which allowed cellphone owners to unlock their devices for use on multiple networks -- drew heavy public criticism in which the White House joined after a petition.

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The House Judiciary Committe's Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet heard testimony from representatives of CTIA, Consumers Union, a broad-based group of digital copyright advocates and the Competitive Carriers' Association. (Formerly known as the Rural Carriers' Association.) At issue is H.R. 1123, which would reverse the rule and create legal protection for phone unlocking.

While all sides praised the move to legalize unlocking as an important move toward restoring consumer freedom, they had different ideas about the extent and details of what the proposed law should entail.

Consumers Union Senior Policy Counsel George Slover said in his testimony that legal unlocking should be a "key step on the road to more competition," saying that the current subsidized purchase and long-term contract model is outdated and that the ability to switch freely between carriers is central to that.

"[The system] steers consumers into long-term service contracts that then make it difficult to switch carriers. If consumers were able to shop for the best deal on each of these purchases separately, they would benefit significantly from the lower prices, improved quality, and greater innovation and variety that healthy competition would encourage among mobile device manufacturers and wireless carriers alike," he said.

CTIA General Counsel Mike Altschul, unsurprisingly, focused on very different matters in his testimony. While generally supportive of an individual's right to unlock, he said that CTIA did not recommend a complete lack of restrictions on phone unlocking, in order to combat illegal resellers.

"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. 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," according to Altschul.

H.R. 1123 is closer to CTIA's vision of the future than the Consumers Union's -- as Altschul says, it's "narrowly tailored" and essentially just rolls back the Library of Congress decision, preserving the previous status quo. As the bill is one of several currently making their way through Congress, this may mean that a different draft could prove more attractive to non-industry groups like CU.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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