FCC's Genachowski: We'll investigate ruling on unlocked phones

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said that the agency will look into a government ruling restricting consumers from unlocking their cell phones to see if it harms competition and whether the executive branch can do anything about it. As of now, a White House petition to rescind the ruling has received 114,244 signatures, well above the 100,000-threshold needed to trigger a White House response. The "ban raises competition concerns; it raises innovation concerns," Genachowski said at a recent TechCrunch CrunchGov event.

The petition, started Jan. 25 by OpenSignal co-founder Sina Khanifar, asked that "the White House ask the Librarian of Congress to rescind this decision, and failing that, champion a bill that makes unlocking permanently legal." Currently, if U.S. mobile customers want to unlock their handset and bring it to another carrier, they now need express permission from their current carrier to do so, according to a government ruling that went into effect Jan. 26. In effect, the Library of Congress, which governs copyright law, said that there is no copyright exemption for unlocking cellphones, making unauthorized unlocking potentially illegal.

Despite Genachowski's indication that the FCC will look into the ruling, it's not clear what he or the FCC can do since the Library of Congress and the U.S. Copyright Office are part of the legislative branch, not the executive branch. Therefore, Congress would need to pass a law overturning the decision since the Obama administration cannot force the Library of Congress to do so. "It's something that we will look at at the FCC to see if we can and should enable consumers to use unlocked phones," Genachowski said. Article