White House Backs Right To Unlock Mobile Devices

The Obama administration said this afternoon that it supports lifting a month-old ban on unlocking mobile devices.

"Consumers should be able to unlock their cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties," R. David Edelman, senior advisor for Internet, Innovation & Privacy wrote today, adding that the same principle should apply to tablets. "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," he wrote. "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."

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski also criticized the unlocking ban, saying it "doesn't pass the common sense test." He added that the agency is considering taking action in order to "preserve consumers' ability to unlock their mobile phones."

Edelman's statement came in response to a petition posted by entrepreneur Sina Khanifar several days before the unlocking ban took effect. That petition drew more than 110,000 signatures, necessitating a response by the White House.

Until recently, people were able to unlock cell phones without worrying about prosecution for circumventing phones’ digital rights management software -- which is illegal under a provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Every three years, the Librarian of Congress issues exemptions to that provision. In the past, officials granted one for purposes of unlocking smartphones.

But last October, the Librarian of Congress decided to let the exemption expire. That move irked many observers, especially because the DMCA aims to prevent piracy, not to help wireless carriers hold onto their customers.

Digital rights groups like Public Knowledge and Free Press are cheering the White House's announcement today. "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," Sherwin Siy, vice president of legal affairs at Public Knowledge, said in a statement.

Despite the criticism from the White House, the new ban on unlocking will remain in place unless and until new laws are passed.

Edelman said that the White House would support "a range of approaches," including new laws clarifying 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."

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