The White House responds: cell phone unlocking should be legalized

By , Mar 4, 2013

iPhone 4S Factory Unlock

With the United States Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski promising last Thursday to look into cell phone unlocking, the federal government is now expressing concern about the recent criminalization of the controversial topic, with the White House finally making known its official stance on cell phone unlocking.

R. David Edelman, a Senior Advisor for Internet, Innovation, and Privacy  for the White House, Monday published the official response stating the government stands in support of those wishing to unlock their cellphones once they have fulfilled the terms of the contract. Unlocking your iPhone, as you know, basically frees your handset from the clutches of your carrier so you can take it to any wireless company’s network…

Earlier this year, the expiration of an exemption in a digital copyright has prompted outrage from cell phone owners. The exemption by the Library of Congress was in place for the past six years and it effectively stopped enforcement of the ban on circumvention of technological protection measures controlling access to copyrighted software on cell phones.

This means that as of January 26, unlocking your handset is illegal.

A White House petition calling for (again) allowing cell phone unlocking drew more than 100,000 signatures, requiring an official response.

Monday, White House in its official petition response acknowledges that “consumers should be able to unlock their cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties,” while noting the same rights should extend to other mobile devices such as tablets:

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.

The administration is adamant that “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” and is urging US telcos to re-think their policies.

The government is also calling on the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to weigh in on the issue.

The Library of Congress in a separate response today also agrees that the cell phone unlocking problem would benefit from review and resolution in that context.

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.

However, as the U.S. Copyright Office has recognized many times, the 1201 rulemaking can often serve as a barometer for broader policy concerns and broader policy action.

The most recent rulemaking has served this purpose.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski also released a statement today:

The Copyright Office of the Library of Congress recently reversed its longstanding position and stated it is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act for consumers to unlock new mobile phones, even those outside of contract periods, without their wireless providers’ permission, and that consumers are subject to criminal penalties if they do.

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.

He is also encouraging Congress to take a close look and “consider a legislative solution.”

A lawyer for CTIA, which is the wireless trade group representing wireless carriers, unsurprisingly argues that “unlocked phones are freely available in the marketplace”.

His statement, obtained by AllThingsD, reads:

Customers have numerous options when purchasing mobile devices. They may choose to purchase devices at full price with no lock, or at a substantially discounted price – typically hundreds of dollars less than the full price – by signing a contract with a carrier.

When the contract terms are satisfied, or for a reason that is included in the carrier’s unlocking policy – such as a trip outside the U.S. – carriers will unlock a phone at their customer’s request.

So these wireless companies basically think they should be allowed to get away with their practice of locking devices to their network.

On one hand, one could feel sympathetic to carriers as they often subsidize expensive devices in return for a contractual commitment from users, so they could recoup huge upfront payments to phone vendors over the course of their users’ wireless service contracts.

On the other hand, paying the full price for an off-contract device and still not being allowed to take it to another network seems plain wrong, no matter how you look at it.

In my view, unlock bans are illegal and these greedy telcos should be put in their place.

What’s your position on this issue?

Further reading: how to unlock the iPhone

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  • http://twitter.com/x_rus_x Vitaliy Anonymous

    “Customers have numerous options when purchasing mobile devices. They
    may choose to purchase devices at full price with no lock, or at a
    substantially discounted price – typically hundreds of dollars less than
    the full price – by signing a contract with a carrier.”

    1) As far as I remember, carriers don’t sell unlocked phone on contract or off contract. They unlock them yes, but not sell them. 2) Not every customer unlocks the phone before they sell it on craigslist or ebay. So the person who buys the phone wants to unlock it, but can’t because he wasn’t an AT&T customer. The guy lost the original owners phone number. He is screwed. All he could do is sell the phone, and hope to find another seller that can also unlock the phone. 3) If someone does want to unlock a phone from a different carrier, he will have to pay a huge amount just to unlock it.

    • http://twitter.com/Jackzzz99 Jack Wong

      There is no point to lock the phone if we have “”signed the 2 years contract”" with the substantially discounted price.

      If we terminated the contract:

      1- We will have to return the phone if the contract still within 30days(I think at&t has changed to 2 weeks right?)

      OR

      2- Pay for the termination fee, that will cover the phone cost.

      So what is the point to lock the phone? We cannot get any benefit… And either way, the carrier is not going to lose the money for the phone.

      • Kurt

        How much are cancellation fees? I thought they were only 2 or 3 hundred bucks in the states? Is it really more?

      • http://twitter.com/Jackzzz99 Jack Wong

        It is $325, and they will deduct 10bucks every month.

        I really do not care about the termination fee because if the carrier is very bad at your area or where you spend the time the most, then you have to cancel it anyway right? Rather than paying monthly fee for 23 months but you can’t use the service.

        This is what I always say, who care who has the best coverage or most drop call? As long as I get the 4G LTE signal in MY office and home, then I will use that carrier.

        As of today, March 7 2013, Verizon still cannot do a good 4G LTE coverage at West 36th st between Broadway and 7th ave in NYC. I am talking about inside the building but we are right next to the window that is facing 36th, most importantly, my at&t is getting full bar 4G LTE.

      • Kurt

        Before moving out to Asia, I had Cingular (which you probably know bought up AT&T but decided their name had better name recognition). Well Cingular very good for me to. I worked at Exchange Place Building in Jersey City (you may know it by the Path Stop) It had awesome coverage there and all the way down the shore where I lived. You’re right, you need great coverage for where you go most, work & home.

      • http://twitter.com/Jackzzz99 Jack Wong

        Oh, I am sure you have very good and cheap monthly fee in Asia… Moreover, hotspot is free in HK… -.-

        I do like the drop call and bad voice service from at&t, so I can blame the reception problem when I want to ignore the call in purpose :x

  • http://twitter.com/Wrenddy Manny

    I agree that anyone should be able to unlock their cell phones or tablet. As a matter of fact, this should not even be a topic of discussion. The white house should not dabble into these types of unimportant issues when there are more important issues to be focused on, like Healthcare, economic stability and Gun control and unemployment. Anyone should do whatever they want with their electronic devices, even if they buy it on contract and break it or trash it within minutes, it’s what they want, (As long as they pay it off). So, this is not a topic of discussion, Period…

  • Miguel Meza

    Let us unlock our phones and if we want to pay to cancel let us cancel. Locking us with contracts should be enough!

  • http://www.facebook.com/alain.vasquez Alain Vasquez

    So what about “sprint” carriers I went to buy a unlock phone at apple and the rules didn’t apply for sprint .-.

    • http://twitter.com/Jackzzz99 Jack Wong

      Huh? The unlocked iPhone from Apple store will only work with GSM network, Verizon and Sprint are CDMA network.

  • Mohammad Ridwan

    A step in the right direction.

    • Kurt

      a first for obama

      • http://twitter.com/Konahamarue ElementalXTC

        If everyone who complained about government actually did something about
        this situation instead of complaining about it, there would be no need
        to complain about it.

      • Kurt

        That is quite possible to your impossible theory that is ;)

  • @dongiuj

    In every country please!

  • AppleBits

    My friend has a 2 yr old iphone 4s (paid for in full with NO contract) that was used on ATT, but the plan expired and was terminated last week. Today she tried to get it hooked up to Straight Talk, but they require it unlocked. She then went to ATT and asked them to unlock it per no contract, bought phone outright. They told her they couldn’t unlock it because it’s now against the law. This makes ZERO sense to me, whatsoever. Of course, the same place that sells Straight Talk also got her hooked up on a CHEAP POS android. She HATES it, but it was her ONLY option at the moment. And as of right now, the link to ATT’s unlock form is still active. She’s going to try that. This is just messed up. Oh…and to that lawyer guy who claims peeps could just buy the phone unlocked – that wasn’t an option/offer when she got this one from BB. Just sayin that info is not totally accurate in my experiences.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jared.jensen.7374 Jared Jensen

    STOP giving the government power!!! Do you really want the government to dictate what private companies should and shouldn’t be doing? Can a company not dictate their own terms and conditions? If you don’t like them, then don’t sign the dotted line!

  • JamieYoak2

    The only one that benefits from keeping cell phones locked is the phone companies. They make billions while consumers lose.