The House Majority Leader, Eric Canter, has announced that the House will vote on the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act (H.R. 1123), during the week of February 24, 2014. Leader Canter has announced a series of different votes as part of “#StopGovtAbuse Week.” He noted that these bills are part of an effort to “stop government abuse and hold the Obama Administration accountable for its executive overreach”:
This legislation, H.R. 1123, was introduced by Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and would temporarily reverse the decision of the Librarian of Congress and allow the Librarian to rule on this issue again in October 2015. H.R. 1123 was introduced on March 13, 2013, and passed committee on July 31, 2013 (see my testimony here).
Alternative legislation has been introduced by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO) and Thomas Massie (R-KY), (H.R. 1892), which would legalize technologies like cellphone unlocking permanently and would also legalize other technologies without infringing purposes, such as jail breaking (rooting) of devices. This legislation has received widespread endorsements from activists, technology experts and think-tanks including R Street, FreedomWorks, Generation Opportunity, Cascade Policy Institute, Harbour League, Let Freedom Ring, Public Knowledge and Electronic Freedom Foundation.
As someone who spearheaded the campaign on unlocking, any action on this front is a positive step for consumers and the market, but after Congress passes this temporary stop-gate solution they must quickly consider a permanent solution to the problem, and must ensure that the Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty (TPP) does not make any permanent solution impossible.
As FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai explained:
“Let’s go back to the free market. . . [allow consumers] to take their mobile devices from one carrier to another without fear [and] those who help consumers unlock their phones [shouldn’t] be prosecuted either. . . These fixes should be permanent, so that consumers [and] developers don’t have to worry about the law shifting on a whim.”
This issue cannot continue to be litigated every few years, as Ajit explains:
“Let’s fix this problem permanently. We don’t need to have the exact same debate every three years, like an extended version of the movie Groundhog Day. I can assure you that the case for criminalizing cellphone unlocking isn’t going to get any stronger with time”
Back-story on Phone Unlocking:
A year ago a ruling went into effect by the Librarian of Congress that made it a crime to unlock your cellphone (changing the settings on the phone to be able to be used on a different phone carrier). When that ruling went into effect, there was public outcry across the technology community that such a basic technology was now illegal to use.
Thousands of Americans became potential criminals for exerting their basic property rights by plugging their phones into their computers and running a simple computer program. The resale market for phones began to dry up and websites allowing unlocking shut down to avoid liability or stopped servicing US phones:
It was a clear case of crony capitalism on behalf of some of the largest companies with the largest lobbying shops in Washington, D.C. (Though it should be noted that over 100 wireless carriers, including T-Mobile and Sprint, were always against the ruling). Many big companies use their lobbying might to go after their competitors – that’s not particularly uncommon – but the phone companies are perhaps unique in also going directly after their own consumers.
The resulting public outcry, perhaps the largest online response since SOPA/PIPA, led the White House, FCC and Members of Congress to condemn the ruling by the Librarian of Congress and to support cellphone unlocking. One year later, despite an overwhelming consensus in favor of unlocking, unlocking your phone, without permission from your carrier, is still a crime (placing individuals under potential civil and perhaps even criminal, liability).
A year ago the Atlantic published my piece The Most Ridiculous Law of 2013: It is Now a Crime to Unlock Your Phone. Many people were repulsed by this misuse of governmental power. Within the next month, a White House petition, created by Sina Khanifar, on this issue reached over 114,000 signatures, the first time a White House “We the People” petition has received over 100,000 signatures. As a response to the petition, the White House came out in full support of cellphone unlocking which cascaded into support from the FCC, Members of Congress and outside groups.
The verdict is in:
- Consumers like the freedom to unlock their devices and bring them to another carrier.
- The non-dominant phone companies, over 100 of them, like being able to compete with one another and encourage consumers to unlock their devices and bring them to their service (see T-Mobile advertising for consumers to unlock their phones).
- The market benefits from the competition that unlocking provides.
The stakes are the very future of the mobile market which is estimated to be a $341.4 billion market in 2015.