SACRAMENTO -- The California Senate has flipped the switch on the kill-switch bill.

Weeks after killing legislation to require the anti-theft technology in all new smartphones, the Senate on Thursday passed a revised version of the bill as tech giants Apple and Microsoft dropped their opposition.

The decision was applauded by law enforcement groups, who say arming all smartphones with software that can remotely disable them is the best way to tell crooks they're not worth stealing. But with many wireless carriers still putting up a fight, the bill could face a challenge in the state Assembly.

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, urges lawmakers to approve his measure requiring electronics manufacturers to install a shut-off function in all
State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, urges lawmakers to approve his measure requiring electronics manufacturers to install a shut-off function in all smartphones manufactured and sold after July 2015, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday May 8, 2014. The bill, SB962, which fell two votes short of passage when it was brought up two weeks ago, was approved by the Senate by a 26-8 vote. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) ( Rich Pedroncelli )

If the bill becomes law, industry experts say, it could set a new standard across the country, as many states are trying to address a dramatic rise in increasingly violent robberies of smartphones. New York, Minnesota, Illinois and the federal government are all considering legislation that would put anti-theft technology in cellphones.

"If this proposal becomes law in California, it will likely command discussion in any other states with large, urban populations where cellphone theft has become an issue," said Ross Rubin, a principal analyst for Reticle Research. "And now, it seems like there's acceptance of this concept in some quarters of the wireless industry where there wasn't before."


Advertisement

Urging his colleagues to give the kill-switch bill a second chance, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, on Thursday asked the Senate to reconsider SB962 with amendments that give manufacturers an extra six months to comply with the rules and clarify that the bill does not apply to tablets. Kill-switch technology would be required in all cellphones manufactured after July 1, 2015, and sold in California.

Those minor tweaks made a huge difference for the six Democrats, including Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, who voted against the bill when it was first considered by the Senate several weeks ago and for Apple and Microsoft, who waived their opposition after reviewing the amendments. On Thursday, not one Democrat opposed the bill, which passed on a 26-8 vote.

"By listening to the concerns of our opponents, we had a big success today," said Leno, the bill's sponsor. "Given the size of the California market, it wouldn't take much for another state like New York to follow our lead and for manufacturers everywhere to comply with these necessary requirements."

In the Bay Area, cellphone robberies have become more prevalent and more violent, law enforcement officials say, with smartphones at the center of more than half of all robberies in San Francisco and as many as three in four robberies in Oakland. Many victims are attacked while walking down a street or riding a public train.

Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb had his iPhone taken from him at gunpoint in 2012, and he applauded Sacramento lawmakers for "wising up" and advancing Leno's bill.

"As an Oakland local elected official and the victim of an armed robbery, I know that when this bill becomes law, it will reduce armed robberies in Oakland and throughout the state," Kalb said in a statement. "Voluntary efforts sound nice but do nothing to deter these serious crimes."

After Thursday's vote, a powerful trade group -- which represents every major company in the cellphone business, including Samsung, Verizon, AT&T and others -- issued a terse statement accusing the Senate of stifling innovation by embracing the kill-switch bill.

"We've rolled out stolen phone databases, consumer education campaigns, anti-theft apps and features and most recently a 'Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment,' which provides a uniform national technology solution," said Jamie Hastings, vice president of external and state affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association. "If technology mandates are imposed on a state-by-state basis, the uniformity is threatened."

Dozens of the group's lobbyists swarmed the Senate floor before the vote several weeks ago when it narrowly failed.

The replacement of lost and stolen phones and tablets is a $300 billion business in the U.S., and the nation's four largest wireless carriers take in close to $8 billion annually on theft and loss insurance policies, said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, one of the bill's sponsors.

Beall said he's sensitive to CTIA's concerns because the group represents so many businesses from his district, but he called Leno's amendments targeted and smart.

"Microsoft and Apple indicated to me that the changes made the bill more flexible, something they could work with," Beall said.

The bill will likely be amended further when it's reviewed by the Assembly, and Beall said he hopes there will be an answer for one shortcoming that still troubles him. The proposal fails to address what would happen if a domestic violence victim's cellphone were locked remotely by his or her abuser.

Minutes before Thursday's floor vote, Beall said he got a phone call from a constituent who has been battered before and shared his fear about the legislation.

"Right until the minute before the vote, I was getting calls from constituents concerned about the bill from a domestic violence standpoint," Beall said. "This is one element of the bill that we must continue to work on."

Contact Jessica Calefati at 916-441-2101. Follow her at Twitter.com/calefati. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.

KILL SWITCH BILL: WHAT IT REQUIRES

Any smartphone sold in California that's manufactured after July 1, 2015, must have technology that can render the device inoperable if it's lost or stolen.
The technology must be able to withstand a hard reset and prevent reactivation of the device on a wireless network except by the rightful owner or his or her designee.
Consumers who don't want a kill switch on their smartphones will be able to opt out and deactivate the technology.
Retailers who distribute smartphones without the required technology will be subject to a civil penalty up to $2,500 for every phone sold that fails to comply.