Monday, March 04, 2013

White House responds to 'We the People' petition: It's time to legalize cell phone unlocking

A petition that -- for once -- wasn't an example of the White House's "We the People" site jumping the shark has received an official response. Like the FCC, the White is firmly behind cell phone unlocking, it announced on Monday.

In an email sent to those who signed the petition, the White House said, in part:
Last week the White House brought together experts from across government who work on telecommunications, technology, and copyright policy, and we're pleased to offer our response.

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. In fact, we believe the same principle should also apply to tablets, which are increasingly similar to smart phones. 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.

This is particularly important for secondhand or other mobile devices that you might buy or receive as a gift, and want to activate on the wireless network that meets your needs -- even if it isn't the one on which the device was first activated. All consumers deserve that flexibility.
In 2012, the Library of Congress ruled that cell phone unlocking would no longer be legal. While it gave consumers a grace period, that expired in January of this year, prompting the petition.

What's probably not known to many is that prior to the new decision, the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), voiced strong support in favor of keeping the previous exception to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) for cell phone carrier unlocking. That, it seems, was ignored.

Of course, the big question is: What are the next steps. The White House said:
The Obama 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.

We also believe the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), with its responsibility for promoting mobile competition and innovation, has an important role to play here. FCC Chairman Genachowski today voiced his concern about mobile phone unlocking (.pdf), and to complement his efforts, NTIA will be formally engaging with the FCC as it addresses this urgent 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.
While that is the official response, Sina Khanifar, founder of, who wrote the petition that prompted the White House response, wants to go to the heart of the issue, the DMCA:
While I think this is wonderful, I think the real culprit here is Section 1201 of the DMCA, the controversial "anti-circumvention provision." I discussed with the White House the potential of pushing to have that provision amended or removed, and they want to continue that conversation.
Nothing is going to change right away, and even if it does, consumers need to remember that technical issues can prevent free movement from carrier to carrier. For example, Verizon's LTE is incompatible with AT&T's.

In general, though, if a cell phone is unlocked, an AT&T user could, for example, put a T-Mobile -- or even Rogers (Canada) SIM into the device and see it activate on that network. Naturally, looking at it from a financial point of view, unlocking a cell phone isn't something most wireless carriers would appreciate (obviously). It gives a customer the chance to bolt to another carrier.

While unlocking is currently illegal, to be clear, jailbreaking (and rooting) -- which for iPhones is necessary in order to unlock a phone anyway -- is still legal. That is, of course, except for tablets.

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