House and Senate Judiciary Committee leaders joined the cell phone unlocking debate last week by introducing a pair of new bills.  If enacted, the bills would overturn an October 2012 regulation issued by the Library of Congress, which effectively prohibits consumers from unlocking cell phones purchased after January 26, 2013 so that they may be used on other networks.

The bills — H.R. 1123 and S. 517 — take a narrow approach, similar to the one advocated by the White House, by temporarily re-enacting an older Library of Congress rule that allows unlocking.  That policy would remain in place until 2015, at which point the Library would revisit the matter.  The bills also direct the Library to determine whether consumers should be permitted to unlock tablets and other wireless devices.  Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, the Senate measure’s sponsor, explained in a March 11 floor statement that the tablet proceeding “makes sense” because “the line between phone and tablet is beginning to blur.”

Both bills are currently pending in their chamber’s Judiciary Committee.  Although neither committee has announced plans to mark up the bills, the fact that the chairman and ranking minority member of the relevant House and Senate committees are backing the bills suggests that they may move forward quickly.  Indeed, interest in the issue is so strong that some House Judiciary Committee members raised it at the first available opportunity, a March 20 subcommittee hearing on the future of copyright law.

Senator Ron Wyden has introduced a broader proposal, S. 467, that would make the cell phone unlocking exemption a permanent part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).  Representative Jason Chaffetz has likewise tweeted that he is working on unlocking legislation.

For more coverage of the unlocking issue and the DMCA anti-circumvention provision from which it arises, please see this post by Sarah Tremont.