We’re one step closer to sanity on cellphone unlocking

July 31, 2013

Imagine porting this to Verizon. (Eric Draper / AP)

Good news for people who want to quit their wireless carrier and move to another service — the House Judiciary Committee has moved forward a bill that would make cellphone unlocking a legal activity again.

Better yet, an amendment to the bill makes it possible for any owner of a cellphone to designate someone else with the authority to unlock their phone for them. It's a small addition that has outsize implications.

To understand why, let's take a look at some of the other phone unlocking bills that Congress has considered. In the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) floated a bill earlier this year simply reversing the Library of Congress' decision that initially made cellphone unlocking a criminal offense — but that wouldn't do anything to prevent the LOC from reversing the reversal in the future.

Some want to make cellphone unlocking a permanently legal activity, but only allow a phone's owner to perform the unlocking himself. That's what Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) proposed during the House Judiciary Committee's markup Wednesday afternoon.

"We're about to facilitate an industry in theft," said Watt, who worried that criminals who've stolen a device could then unlink it from the owner's account and re-sell it on the black market.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) shot back that Watt's idea was "offensive."

"It's ridiculous," Chaffetz said. "It shows a degree of not understanding how these pieces of technology work. I reject your amendment."

So did Sina Khanifar, one of the lead activists pushing for cellphone unlocking reform. The reason any cellphone unlocking bill requires a designation or agent provision to work, he explained, is because many people often go to third-party vendors to get the unlocking done.

If you're the only one who's legally allowed to do the unlocking, either you need to learn the programming skills to build the unlocking software yourself, or the person who's helping you must be willing to take on some legal risk. Both scenarios are impractical.

"Without the amendment," Khanifar told me, "a user would have to write their own software to unlock their device, which 99.9 percent of consumers aren't able to do."

The bill, which also creates a process for considering whether tablets ought to be included, now goes to the House floor. Derek Khanna, the former Republican staffer who lost his job after promoting copyright reform, said that if and when the bill passed in the full chamber, it would bring handset portability up to par with a similar freedom that consumers have enjoyed for almost a decade.

"Consumer choice of phone portability through this proposed law," said Khanna, "is one of the most important changes since consumers gained the right to number portability."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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