White House Agrees: Laws Around Unlocking Phones Lack Sense

A Whitehouse.gov petition about a new law making it illegal to unlock mobile phones received an official response: We agree with the people.

The White House agrees with the more than 110,000 Americans who signed a petition asking that it again become legal to unlock a mobile phone.

On Jan. 26, an October 2012 ruling by the Librarian of Congress, on the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), went into effect, making it illegal for a consumer to unlock a phone, even after his or her contract with the carrier that sold the device had expired.

R. David Edelman, senior advisor for the Internet, innovation and privacy, said in a March 4 response on the White House blog that he not only agrees, but believes the same should apply to tablets, "which are increasingly similar to smart phone."

Edelman continued:

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.

Edelman generously framed the librarian's decision as the result of flaws in the system. "Clearly the White House and Library of Congress agree that the DMCA exception process is a rigid and imperfect fit for this telecommunication issue," he added, "and we want to ensure this particular challenge for mobile competition is solved."

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski, in a March 4 statement, agreed with the petition that policy change "doesn't pass the common sense test."

Genachowski added that the FCC is examining the issue, and he's encouraged Congress to consider a legislative solution.

Shrewin Sly, vice president of legal affairs at consumer interest group Public Knowledge, applauded the White House's response to the petition.

"We're very glad that the administration recognizes the significant problems created when copyright laws tread upon the rights of consumers to use the products they have bought and owned," Sly said in a March 4 statement. "These problems will continue, however, so long as the law is written in such a way that laws intended to protect artists can be abused to stifle competition—not just in cell phones, but also in a wide variety of other products and services."

How to proceed, now that the nation appears to agree that the law should change?

The White House's Edelman said that Obama Administration would support a range of approaches, "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."

The FCC also has a responsibility and a role to play in promoting competition and innovation, Edelman said—and which Genachowski, in his statement, agreed with.

Finally, Edelman called on the carriers 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."