In a dramatic call for action directly prompted by 114,000 signatures on a "We the People" petition, the Obama Administration moments ago pledged to overturn a federal regulatory decision that had rendered the act of unlocking a cell phone illegal.
From a reply to the petition posted within the hour:
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. 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.
The issue came to a head recently when the Library of Congress allowed to expire an exception to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that until then protected those who would unlock their cell phones and those carriers who would court their business.
As for the next step:
The Obama Administration would support a range of approaches to addressing this 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.
We also believe the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), with its responsibility for promoting mobile competition and innovation, has an important role to play here. FCC Chairman Genachowski today voiced his concern about mobile phone unlocking (.pdf), and to complement his efforts, NTIA will be formally engaging with the FCC as it addresses this urgent issue.
Finally, we would encourage mobile providers to consider what steps they as businesses can take to ensure that their customers can fully reap the benefits and features they expect when purchasing their devices.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski issued a statement that reads:
"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. I also encourage Congress to take a close look and consider a legislative solution."
As for the Library of Congress, its statement was vague but telling:
"Both the Librarian of Congress and the Register of Copyrights value our colleagues in the administration and the thoughtful discussions we have had with them on this issue. 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."
This news just broke and there's always the possibility that what appears to be a ban reversal will turn out to be something less ... but it appears as though anyone betting on that outcome will be backing a long-shot.
(Update: Here's reaction from Sina Kahnifar, a leader of the petition effort: "I'm really glad to see the White House taking action on an issue that's clearly very important to people. As the White House said in the response, keeping unlocking legal is really 'common sense,' and I'm excited to see them recognizing this.
"This is a big victory for consumers, and I'm glad to have played a part in it. A lot of people reacted skeptically when I originally started the petition, with lots of comments to the effect of 'petitions don't do anything.' The optimist in me is really glad to have proved them wrong. The White House just showed that they really do listen, and that they're willing to take action.
"While I think this is wonderful, I think the real culprit here is Section 1201 of the DMCA, the controversial 'anti-circumvention provision.' I discussed with the White House the potential of pushing to have that provision amended or removed, and they want to continue that conversation.")
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