White House throws support behind unlocking phones

The Obama administration said it supports consumers who want to unlock their mobile phones without fear of breaking the law, and it urged legislative fixes to remedy a recent government ruling on the topic that removed protections for people who do unlock their phones.

A petition on the subject has so far received more than 114,00 signatures, well above the 100,000-threshold needed to trigger an official White House response. 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."

"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, the administration's senior advisor for Internet, innovation and privacy, in the White House's response to the petition. "In fact, we believe the same principle should also apply to tablets, which are increasingly similar to smartphones. And 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. 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."

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.

The ruling, from the Library of Congress, concerns the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and was issued last October. 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.

The ruling generated outrage among consumers. "Consumers will be forced to pay exorbitant roaming fees to make calls while traveling abroad," the petition against the ruling states. "It reduces consumer choice, and decreases the resale value of devices that consumers have paid for in full."

Edelman wrote in the White House response that the administration "would support a range of approaches to addressing this issue, including narrow legislative fixes in the telecommunications space that make it clear: 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."

In response to the White House's latest statement, the Library of Congress, which is an arm of Congress and therefore not subject to control by the administration, said 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 rulemaking is a technical, legal proceeding and involves a lengthy public process," the statement from the Library of Congress said. "It requires the Librarian of Congress and the Register of Copyrights to consider exemptions to the prohibitions on circumvention, based on a factual record developed by the proponents and other interested parties. The officials must consider whether the evidence establishes a need for the exemption based on several statutory factors. It does not permit the U.S. Copyright Office to create permanent exemptions to the law. As designed by Congress, the rulemaking serves a very important function, but it was not intended to be a substitute for deliberations of broader public policy."

The Obama administration, through the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, will also work with the FCC on the issue. "Finally, we would encourage mobile providers to consider what steps they as businesses can take to ensure that their customers can fully reap the benefits and features they expect when purchasing their devices," Edelman wrote.

"From a communications policy perspective, this raises serious competition and innovation concerns, and for wireless consumers, it doesn't pass the common sense test," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement. "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."

Khanifar said he was pleased with the developments but now has his sights set on changing the DMCA law itself. "While I think this is wonderful, I think the real culprit here is Section 1201 of the DMCA, the controversial 'anti-circumvention provision,'" he told AllThingsD. "I discussed with the White House the potential of pushing to have that provision amended or removed, and they want to continue that conversation."

For more:
- see this White House response
- see this Library of Congress statement
- see this AllThingsD article
- see this separate AllThingsD article
- see this The Verge article

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