White House and FCC: Legalize smartphone unlocking

By Stephen C. Webster
Monday, March 4, 2013 15:57 EDT
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A woman interacts with a smartphone. Photo: Shutterstock.com.
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In prepared text published to its “We the People” petition website, the White House said Monday that it fully supports legalizing the practice of “unlocking” smartphones so that they can be activated on other networks.

The Obama administration’s response coincided with a statement (PDF) by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski, who said criminalizing people simply for unlocking their phones “doesn’t pass the common sense test.”

The Obama administration’s response was prompted by a petition with more than 114,000 signatures on it, asking that the White House do something about the unlocking ban that went into effect on Jan. 26. “Consumers will be forced to pay exorbitant roaming fees to make calls while traveling abroad,” the petition complained. “It reduces consumer choice, and decreases the resale value of devices that consumers have paid for in full.”

In the administration’s response, Senior Advisor for Internet, Innovation and Policy R. David Edelman explained that the problem originates in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which among other things forbids circumvention of software meant to protect copyrights. Smartphones, however, used to be exempt from this provision, but that exemption expired in January when the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress refused an extension.

“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,” Edelman wrote. “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.”

Genachowski was also concerned that the Copyright Office’s action “raises serious competition and innovation concerns,” warning that it “doesn’t pass the common sense test” for consumers and businesses. “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,” he explained. “I also encourage Congress to take a close look and consider a legislative solution.”

The White House, similarly, proposed narrowly defined legislation that would “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.”

Photo: Shutterstock.com.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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