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Senate heavyweights forge bipartisan accord on phone unlocking

The right and left agree: It's just 'common sense'

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Two US senators – the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee – have announced a rare bit of bipartisanism in the fractious US government: they've agreed on a bill to allow consumers to unlock their smartphones once their carrier contracts expire.

Democrat Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Republican Chuck Grassley (R-IA) don't agree on many things. Leahy, for example, has said that "no one should suffer from discrimination based on who they love," while Grassley says "I have always supported a definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman." Taxes, Obamacare, climate change, you name it, they likely disagree – but they have found common ground on smartphone unlocking.

Leahy writes that he, Grassley, and others are working to "enact common sense legislation that puts consumers first by allowing them to 'unlock' their cell phones." For his part, Grassley's common sense tells him that "Empowering people with the freedom to use the carrier of their choice after complying with their original terms of service is the right thing to do."

The bill that will be taken up at this Thursday's Executive Business Meeting of the Judiciary Committee – S.517, the "Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act" – would restore the phone-unlocking exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that was approved in 2010 but reversed in 2012.

A House bill weaker than S.517, H.R.1123, the "Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act", was introduced by Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-FL) and passed this February. That bill, however, was quickly excoriated by some as having been neutered by special interests, and more industry-friendly than the consumer-friendly H.R.1982, which had been introduced by Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) in May 2013.

When announcing that S.517 would be brought up at this Thursday's meeting, Leahy said that he had "worked for months" with Goodlatte and others to hammer out the bipartisan compromise – a hint that if S.517 passes the Senate, the two bills will be merged in conference committee in such a way as to not only lean more towards the rights of consumers, but also to make it clear to the Librarian of Congress – who grants exemptions to the DCMA – that Congress is serious about allowing smartphone unlocking.

After all, as Leahy and Grassley have proven, that's a bit of common sense about which both those on the right and the left can agree. ®

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