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March 4, 2013

Unlocking Cellphone Should Be Legal, Obama Administration Says

The White House is backing the more than 114,000 petition signers who say it should be legal to unlock their Smartphones to work with multiple wireless networks without carrier permission.

The Obama administration released a statement today (March 4) in response to the ‘Make Unlocking Cellphones Legal’ petition containing 114,322 signatures on the White House’s We The People site.

“The White House agrees with the 114,000+ of you who believe that consumers should be able to unlock their cellphones without risking criminal or other penalties,” White House senior adviser on Internet issues R. David Edelman said in a statement. “In fact, we believe the same principle should also apply to tablets, which are increasingly similar to Smartphones.

“And 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. 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.

“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.”

It is officially illegal in the U.S. to unlock any Smartphone purchased from a carrier without that carrier’s permission.

Under the new law, first-time offenders could face fines of up to $500,000, be imprisoned for five years, or both. Repeat offenders face a fine of $1 million, imprisonment for up to 10 years, or both.

The Library of Congress, which handles the rulemaking for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), enacted the law in October with a 90-day transition period. That transition period ran out Jan. 26.

Even though the White House has sided with the petitioners, that does not give people license to unlock their cellphones just yet.

Edelman said the Obama Administration would support “a range of approaches” to address the 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.”

Following the White House’s announcement, the Library of Congress also released a statement indicating the “question of locked cellphones has implications for telecommunications policy and that it would benefit from review and resolution in that context.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should also play a role in addressing the issue, the White House statement said.

Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement the FCC is examining the issue “looking into whether the agency, wireless providers, or others should take action to preserve consumers’ ability to unlock their mobile phones.”

Genachowski is encouraging Congress to take a closer look at the issue and “consider a legislative solution.”