White House supports legalization of cellphone unlocking

The White House said on Monday that people should be allowed to unlock their cellphones after they have completed their contract.

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The Obama administration issued its statement in response to an online petition on the White House's website.

“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,” wrote R. David Edelman, White House senior adviser for Internet, innovation and privacy.

Unlocking a cellphone allows the owner to switch the device to another company's network. The Librarian of Congress ruled last year that customers must obtain their carrier's permission to unlock their phones, even if their contract has expired.

"If you have paid for your mobile device, and aren't bound by a service agreement or other obligation, you should be able to use it on another network," Edelman wrote, adding that tablet computers should also be exempt from the ban. 

"It's common sense, crucial for protecting consumer choice, and important for ensuring we continue to have the vibrant, competitive wireless market that delivers innovative products and solid service to meet consumers' needs."

But the White House does not have direct authority to overturn the decision by the Librarian of Congress, a legislative branch agency.

In his statement, Edelman said the administration would support legislation to make it clear that people should be allowed to unlock their devices.

He said the administration also believes the Federal Communications Commission, which licenses all wireless service providers, "has an important role to play here."

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski issued his own statement on Monday saying the current policy "raises serious competition and innovation concerns." 

"For wireless consumers, it doesn't pass the common sense test," Genachowski said. "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."

Genachowski also urged Congress to pass legislation to legalize the practice. He made similar comments to technology blog TechCrunch last week. 

The Librarian of Congress issued a statement thanking the administration for its input, but the agency did not promise to reverse its decision.

“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 said in a statement.

"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," the agency added.

The agency said its rulemaking is a "technical, legal proceeding," but that the process can be a "barometer for broader policy concerns and broader policy action. "  

"The most recent rulemaking has served this purpose,” the agency said.

The library's decision was based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which bans people from circumventing a "technological measure" to gain access to a copyrighted work.

The law instructs the Librarian of Congress to grant exemptions to the ban. In 2006 and 2010, the Librarian of Congress exempted cellphone unlocking from the law's restrictions, but the agency decided last year to allow the exemption to expire in January.

Michael Altschul, senior vice president and legal counsel of CTIA, the wireless industry's lobbying group, said the library decided the exemption was no longer needed because the largest carriers already often allow customers to unlock their devices.

“Customers have numerous options when purchasing mobile devices," he said in an email. 

"They may choose to purchase devices at full price with no lock, or at a substantially discounted price – typically hundreds of dollars less than the full price – by signing a contract with a carrier. When the contract terms are satisfied, or for a reason that is included in the carrier’s unlocking policy – such as a trip outside the U.S. – carriers will unlock a phone at their customer’s request,” he said.

Sherwin Siy, vice president of legal affairs for consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, applauded the White House for taking a "strong stance in favor of consumers, competition and innovation."

He warned, however, that problems will continue until Congress revises copyright laws. 

— Updated at 2:08 p.m.