House Passes Cellphone Unlocking Bill While New Provision Causes Withdrawals

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By Anandashankar Mazumdar

Feb. 25 --On Feb. 25, the House of Representatives passed by a vote of 295-114 under suspension of the rules a bill aimed at creating a statutory right for owners of cellphones to be able to “unlock” their phones so that they can use the same phone with a different service provider.

The Unlocking Consumer Choice Act (H.R. 1123), which was introduced in March by Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was widely supported by members on both sides of the aisle.

However, some representatives expressed objections to the current form of the legislation and even suggested that statutory protection of unlocking was no longer necessary, given that the Federal Communications Commission had in December persuaded the wireless industry to allow unlocking on a voluntary basis (241 PTD, 12/16/13).

On the morning of the day that the vote was to take place, several representatives who had previously supported the bill, issued a letter to their colleagues urging that H.R. 1123 be defeated on the floor of the House. The letter--signed by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), Thomas H. Massie (R-Ky.), and Jared S. Polis (D-Colo.)--objected to a provision added to the bill after its approval by the full committee in July (148 PTD, 8/1/13).

The new provision would exempt from protection “bulk unlocking” of phones. This provision might have something to with concerns expressed by some members of the Judiciary Committee in last year's hearings on the bill that permitting individual consumers to unlock their phones should not extend to businesses who charge consumers to unlock their phones for them.

The letter referred to statements by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge, consumer groups that had both supported the bill in the past, in which they withdrew their support because of the appearance of the new provision. Public Knowledge's Sherwin Siy said:

The new language specifically excluding bulk unlocking could indicate that the drafters believe that phone unlocking has something to do with copyright law. This is not a position we support. Even if Congress believes that bulk unlocking is a problem, it's clear that it's not a copyright problem, just as individual unlocking is not a copyright problem. A bill designed to scale back overreaching copyright laws should not also endorse an overreach of copyright law.


Lamenting the apparent unilateral change to the bill, the letter said, “It is sad that the bipartisan consensus reached during mark-up in the Judiciary committee to improve the law has been destroyed by a secret decision of the majority after the bill was reported out.”

The letter further said that with the voluntary deal reached by the FCC, unlocking legislation might no longer be necessary as a practical matter. A spokesman for Eshoo told Bloomberg BNA on Feb. 25 that the opposition to the current form of H.R. 1123 was bipartisan and “growing.” Under suspension of the rules, he noted, the bill would require a two-thirds vote to pass and thus it would need bipartisan support.


To contact the reporter on this story: Anandashankar Mazumdar in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Naresh Sritharan at