White House says it should be legal to unlock cell phones

R. David Edelman, the White House senior advisor for internet, innovation, and privacy, wrote, “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,” he continued, “we believe the same principle should also apply to tablets, which are increasingly similar to smart phones.” Provided, of course, that the user isn’t bound by a separate service agreement or some other obligation. “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.”

The issue stems from a decision by the Librarian of Congress back in October 2012. Technically, both jailbreaking (gaining root access to a phone) and unlocking (breaking out of restrictions limiting the phone’s use to a predefined carrier) are illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The EFF, however, fought for and won temporary exemptions for both. Those exemptions were due to expire. In October the The Librarian of Congress renewed the exemption for jailbreaking, but pointedly did not renew the exemption for unlocking – making it illegal for new cell phones under DMCA from 26 January.

So where do we go from here? asks Edelman.

“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.”

He adds that the FCC also believes unlocking should be legal. On Monday FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said that a ban on unlocking “doesn't pass the common sense test.” He went on to add, “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."

With both the White House and the FCC in favor of allowing cell phone unlocking, and suggesting that new legislation might be the answer, it is likely that unlocking will soon become legal again. In the meantime, however, at this moment it remains technically illegal to unlock a cell phone (although, in the US at least, it is still legal to jailbreak).

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