White House: Unlocking cell phones should be legal

Posted By Kristen Butler, UPI.com  |  March 4, 2013 at 5:12 PM
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The Library of Congress, which makes certain rules regarding copyrights, recently banned the "unlocking" of cellphones. That prompted a petition on the White House website that collected more than 114,000 signatures from people calling on the Obama administration to overturn the ban.

"Consumers should be able to unlock their cellphones without risking criminal or other penalties," R. David Edelman, an Obama administration adviser on Internet and privacy issues, said in the official response to the petition. "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."

Wireless carriers often offer otherwise expensive smartphones at deep discounts in return for signing a long-term contract. The phones are locked to the carrier, making it difficult for a consumer to take their phone to another company.

Tech-savvy users have been able to "unlock" their phones as a workaround. T-Mobile has long welcomed unlocked phones from other carriers and even advertised the fact to win over the other carriers' unhappy customers. But last fall, the Library of Congress decided that cellphones should no longer be exempted from a section of copyright law and its ban on unlocking went into effect in January.

"Customers have numerous options when purchasing mobile devices," Michael Altschul, legal counsel to wireless industry trade group CTIA, said in a written statement. "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."

In response to the White House statement, the Library of Congress seemed to dig at the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, saying "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."

The rule-making process as spelled out in the DMCA allows members of the public to request exemptions from the law. In the case of cell phones, the request was to allow circumvention of technological protection measures controlling access to copyrighted software on cell phones.

The Library of Congress statement further noted that DMCA "does not permit the U.S. Copyright Office to create permanent exemptions to the law," and the public request process is lengthy and complicated.

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