Capitol Alert

Bill mandating smart phone ‘kill switches’ passes California Assembly

Moving to quash an increasingly common source of crime, the California Assembly on Thursday approved legislation requiring new smartphones to have disabling “kill switches.”

“None of us should have our lives at risk because we walk down the street with a device that each and every one of us use all day long,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, waving her phone in the air as she spoke.

Senate Bill 962 has pitted law enforcement groups citing a surge of smartphone thefts against phone manufacturers. The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office sponsored the bill, saying the kill switch – which essentially transforms phones into useless bricks – deters would-be thieves who eagerly swipe and resell the sophisticated phones.

“This bill eliminates the financial incentive behind this crime,” said Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Gardena.

Major companies like Verizon, AT&T, Microsoft and Google called the bill redundant, arguing that customers can easily obtain software rendering their phones inoperable. With those dynamics framing the debate, the bill initially fell short in the Senate.

But Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, accepted amendments that push back the bill’s timeline – it now wouldn’t apply to new phones until mid-2015 – and exempt tablets. On the second attempt, the Senate passed the bill on a largely party-line vote.

While individual companies have dropped their opposition, remaining critics include the California Chamber of Commerce, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and technology industry groups like TechAmerica and CTIA.

Assembly Republicans rose in opposition on Thursday, arguing that the legislation burdens phone companies and leaves California’s standards out of sync with the rest of the nation. They echoed the industry’s argument that disabling software is already widely available. The final vote was 51-18, with four Republicans in favor.

“This is another example of California thinking it knows better than the technology innovators and the customers they serve in our state,” said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, decrying “yet another set of government-mandated rules that will actually stifle the very technology that we’re hoping to be creating.”

The bill now returns to the Senate for a vote on amendments, after which it would go to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown.

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