March 4, 2013 — -- The White House has responded to an online petition to make cellphone unlocking legal, and that should make the 100,000-plus people who signed it very happy. The Obama administration says it's time to legalize the practice, which lets you to take your phone with you if you switch carriers, but was banned in January by the Copyright Office and the Library of Congress.
"The White House agrees with the 114,000+ of you who believe that consumers should be able to unlock their cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties," R. David Edelman, White House Senior Advisor for Internet, Innovation and Privacy, wrote on the White House Petitions Blog. "In fact, we believe the same principle should also apply to tablets, which are increasingly similar to smart phones."
Typically, if you sign a contract with a wireless carrier, you get a phone at reduced (or no) price as long as you stay with them. Unlocking your phone involves a software alteration and requires a new SIM card -- not a big deal if it hadn't been banned. The White House says the ability to bring your phone to another carrier or network is "crucial for protecting consumer choice" and is important in making sure America maintains its "vibrant, competitive wireless market."
The Obama administration said it is now planning to address the issue and would support legislative fixes to say that "neither criminal law nor technological locks should prevent consumers from switching carriers when they are no longer bound by a service agreement or other obligation."
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski also supports the efforts. "From a communications policy perspective, this raises serious competition and innovation concerns, and for wireless consumers, it doesn't pass the common sense test," Genachowski said in a statement released today. "The FCC is examining this issue, looking into whether the agency, wireless providers, or others should take action to preserve consumers' ability to unlock their mobile phones. I also encourage Congress to take a close look and consider a legislative solution."
Unlocking a cellphone was legal until Jan. 26. In October 2012 the U.S. Copyright Office and Library of Congress decided to remove phone unlocking as an exemption under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Edelman mentions in his post that the Library of Congress agrees that the process for the exemption is a "rigid and imperfect fit for this telecommunications issue."
"Both the Librarian of Congress and the Register of Copyrights value our colleagues in the administration and the thoughtful discussions we have had with them on this issue," the Library of Congress said in a statement today. "We also agree with the administration that the question of locked cell phones has implications for telecommunications policy and that it would benefit from review and resolution in that context."
Sina Khanifar, the 27-year-old Californian who started the petition on the White House "We the People" website, said, "This is a big victory for consumers, and I'm glad to have played a part in it. A lot of people reacted skeptically when I originally started the petition, with lots of comments to the effect of 'petitions don't do anything.' The optimist in me is really glad to have proved them wrong. The White House just showed that they really do listen, and that they're willing to take action."
Bradley Shear, a social media and technology attorney in the Washington, D.C. area, said that this just isn't a simple reversal. "I think it's a very sound approach that the administration is taking," Shear said. "But due to the stalemate in Washington over other matters, it might be very hard to pass a bipartisan legislative fix to this issue."
Still, Shear said he believes the involvement of the White House and the FCC is a big move for the phone unlocking movement. "This is a game-changer, now that it has the attention of all the powers that be. It will now be a much larger conversation about this issue."