Obama administration declares that it's time to legalize mobile phone unlocking

Successful petition drive to legalize unlocking pushes White House and the FCC to come out in support of consumer protections

The Obama administration and the FCC (PDF) today came out in favor of changing new legislation that makes it difficult for consumers to unlock their rightfully owned mobile devices -- cellphones, smartphones, and tablets -- without risk of fines, jail time, or other criminal penalties. The announcements arrive on the heels of a successful online petition campaign to change a recent Library of Congress ruling that made the unlocking of smartphones purchased after Jan. 26 illegal.

Notably, neither the White House nor the FCC offered any definitive recommendations for rewording the Library of Congress's ruling. They said that the Obama administration, Congress, the FCC, and the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) need to hash that out.

Neither the FCC nor the White House suggested in their respective statements that consumers should have the right to freely unlock their mobile devices under any and all circumstances, either. The general consensus was that consumers who own a phone free and clear -- whether they paid full price for it from the get-go or bought it subsidized as part of a contract, then fulfilled that contract -- should be able to use that phone on any carrier network.

"[I]f 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," wrote R. David Edelman, senior advisor for Internet, innovation, and privacy. "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."

Separately, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski issued the following statement:

From a communications policy perspective, this raises serious competition and innovation concerns, and for wireless consumers, it doesn't pass the common-sense test. 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.

The Library of Congress, which has become the scapegoat for the ruling, also weighed in on the issue, effectively explaining that its hands were tied in making its ruling, as it was following processes spelled out by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. "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," read the statement. "We also agree with the administration that the question of locked cell phones has implications for telecommunications policy and that it would benefit from review and resolution in that context."

InfoWorld's Galen Gruman outlined the controversy:

Here's the issue: When you buy a subsidized smartphone (as most Americans do), you buy a device locked to a carrier's domestic network, even if it has a SIM slot that allows swapping and, thus, running on a different carrier's network. It makes sense that a carrier that just subsidized the price of that new iPhone 5, BlackBerry Z10, Windows Phone, or Android smartphone to the tune of $200 to $400 wants to make sure you don't switch to a different network and leave it in the lurch for the subsidy. But the Library of Congress ruling goes about this the wrong way.

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