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White House Agrees, You Should be Able to Unlock Your Smartphone

smartphone unlocking

After receiving over 100,000 signatures in an official petition over the legality of unlocking smartphones, the White House has responded to a change made by the Librarian of Congress that made it illegal as of January 26 to unlock a carrier-tied phone without approval. We knew a response was coming thanks to the petition hitting that magic 100K mark, but we certainly didn’t expect to receive a response this fast. I’m not sure that we also expected them to fully agree with all of us that we should be able to unlock phones without risking criminal or other penalties. 

Here is the most important statement of the response:

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.

Now, this by no means makes it legal to unlock your phones at will as of today – the White House essentially states that below. The Librarian of Congress has its authority to make rules in a “rigid and imperfect” process. With that said, the Obama Administration says that they will support a range of approaches to addressing the issues going forward, including “narrow legislative fixes” in the telecom space to make it clear that consumers should be able to switch carriers when they are no longer bound to a service agreement.

The FCC is also not in support of the move by the Librarian of Congress and have voiced their opinions here.

There is no telling how long it could take to get new legislation put in place that would make unlocking legal again. Again, this statement does not mean that you can unlock your phone at will. It simply means that the White House is on the same page as you, the consumer, and will do what it can going forward to give you some power back.

Full statement is after the break.

It’s Time to Legalize Cell Phone Unlocking

By R. David Edelman

Thank you for sharing your views on cell phone unlocking with us through your petition on our We the People platform. Last week the White House brought together experts from across government who work on telecommunications, technology, and copyright policy, and we’re pleased to offer our response.

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 White House’s position detailed in this response builds on some critical thinking done by the President’s chief advisory Agency on these matters: the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). For more context and information on the technical aspects of the issue, you can review the NTIA’s letter to the Library of Congress’ Register of Copyrights (.pdf), voicing strong support for maintaining the previous exception to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) for cell phone carrier unlocking.

Contrary to the NTIA’s recommendation, the Librarian of Congress ruled that phones purchased after January of this year would no longer be exempted from the DMCA. The law gives the Librarian the authority to establish or eliminate exceptions — and we respect that process. But it is also worth noting the statement the Library of Congress released today on the broader public policy concerns of the issue. Clearly the White House and Library of Congress agree that the DMCA exception process is a rigid and imperfect fit for this telecommunications issue, and we want to ensure this particular challenge for mobile competition is solved.

So where do we go from here?

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.

We look forward to continuing to work with Congress, the wireless and mobile phone industries, and most importantly you — the everyday consumers who stand to benefit from this greater flexibility — to ensure our laws keep pace with changing technology, protect the economic competitiveness that has led to such innovation in this space, and offer consumers the flexibility and freedoms they deserve.

R. David Edelman is Senior Advisor for Internet, Innovation, & Privacy

Tell us what you think about this response and We the People.

Via:  White House

  • guest

    I guess this would be like, if you bought a car (say a Chevy) in Texas, and you could only use it on Texas Roads while you were paying it off. Once you “own” the car, you want to drive in Florida. but you can’t. because the car was only registered fro texas roads.

    you own the car outright. why can’t you drive it where it is able to be driven. the car is just as capable of running on the florida network of roads, just as it did in texas.

  • Cool, now point to the enumerated power that allows the government to dictate this.

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  • Hatyrei

    The question is,.. are those carriers really bought those devices from the manufacturers at full price ? Or they’re just making up this “subsidize prices” so they can lock it up! 🙂 Also are we signing the contract for the service right? so….they shouldn’t lock the phone at first place! No matter if the phone get’s unlocked you’re still bound by the service agreement not the phone. lol. I’m confused now. hahahha 😛

  • Randy

    I want a smart phone with out a data plan. Between work and home I am within wifi range 90% of the time. I don’t need messaging or mobile internet access (yes I am that old). I would still like to have email, apps and other features but I can wait until I get home to get email.

  • coolsilver

    Wow for once I agree with this adminstration on something. Likely the last.

  • YES faith in our world restored!

    • I hate to break it to you, but this is one tiny win in a world full of similar injustices.

      It may not even be a real win. Just because the administration says they are on our side doesn’t mean that anything will actually happen to fix the problem.

  • skinja99

    To be clear, right now, it is at the discretion of the carrier to allow you to unlock your phone, even if your contract is up.

    The only nuance different in the white house statement vs the current situation, is that the WH is saying once your contract is up, you should be able to (without permission of the carrier)

  • Austin Warren

    I’m sick of this. The only people concerned about it were those that were too lazy to get a real job.

  • j__h

    As Obama says it really is common sense!

  • JoshGroff

    What if you’re bound to a contract but buy the phone off contract? Where does that fit in? Also, if you ETF out of your contract, that would then allow you to unlock your phone? What if you use a friend’s upgrade to buy the phone but it’s activated on your contract free account, there’s way too many variables.

    • Jason Smith

      Seems like the wording of the contract would likely cover most of those conditions already, even if it’s to squash our flexibility. That’s what the big money lawyers are being paid for.

  • Shane Redman

    That one post when Droid-Life gets more political comments than android comments…

  • richard melcher

    Hey Mr. President, what good is unlocking my phone gonna do If I cant afford my phone bill cuz your nation cant afford to pay its military.

    • The US has the largest defense budget of any country, by a HUGE margin. And the people I know who have spent time in the armed forces have definitely not been starved for cash… not sure where this one is coming from.

      • richard melcher

        And yet our budget for Medicare and Medicaid combined is twice as much as our Military budget. And America’s Military Is more capable by a HUGE margin that every other country.

        • i dont think you know , what you are talking about ..

    • Austin Warren

      Stop wasting your money on BS and you would be able too. You make plenty of money and don’t have bills like normal people and somehow they can afford phones.

      • nick

        Don’t have bills like “normal” people? I would ask you sir if you have ever served? If you did, you would know that our bills are about 90% the same as you “normal” people. The only thing I can think of is medical coverage for the individual service member. “Normal” people can also receive health benefits, so I don’t see your point…..

    • You should probably ask House Republicans since they voted in the sequester.

      EDIT: And when Senate Democrats offered an alternative, Senate Repubs filibustered.

      • JBartcaps

        Stop, just stop.

        EDIT: I meant that for Richard also

        • Austin Warren

          Stop? It is all the Republicans fault. We can’t ever do anything good when they don’t want to listen and work together.

          • JBartcaps


          • Austin Warren

            Must be a Republican. Go watch some Faux News.

          • JBartcaps


      • Yeah, it was a great alternative.

      • J L

        You mean the sequester, where Obama threatened to veto any attempt to change it? You expect me to believe that Republicans wrote a sequester that disproportionately cut their sacred cow of Defense spending? Not. Buying. It.

        • CoryDobak

          Actually, Obama wrote it (Well, the Democrats). The basic thought was with something as devastating as the Sequester on the Horizon, the GOP would change it’s tune slightly and play along a little better.

          Didn’t quite work out that way. The GOP is pretty damn set in stone to downright Filibuster anything Obama and the Dems put down.

          Even if they agree with it.

      • Michael Quinlan

        Yeah… that’s right – the federal government and the services it provides are so anemic that this minuscule reduction in spending, while still an increase in spending over last year, will surely result in the end of the world as we know it. Give me a break.

      • Mark

        Actually, the sequester was Obama’s idea. Get your facts straight.

  • bose301s

    This jut states exactly what the Library of congress already allows, if you bought your phone outright or are no longer on contract you already have the right to unlock your phone. It makes sense to me, if you bought a subsidized phone you should either have to serve out the contract or pay the ETF to be able to unlock it. Once you are no longer subsidized or on contract you cal already freely unlock your phone.

    • cortesjues

      I believe that you are currently not allowed to unlock your phone even if you are out of contract anymore. I could be misunderstanding what you said though

    • you can’t unlock, unless you have permission from the carrier. they’re trying to make it so you don’t need permission.

  • Steve Benson

    To address the inevitable questions:

    No, this has nothing to do with bootloaders.

    • Thanks. 😛

    • Only if it was……then verizon couldn’t do anything about it.

      • Tim242

        Unlocking the bootloader is already legal. Doesn’t mean Verizon has to make it easy to do.

      • verizon can’t do anything about you unlocking your bootloader anyway

        • It can void your warranty, but it is not illegal.

          • right but has nothing legalities. it’s common sense with anything that if you change something about it from the way it was given to you, then it will void your warranty. as long as they can prove that it caused the issue. it can’t void your warranty for a broken screen

          • Matt

            Only in the US =D

  • Nexus_FrEak

    Its Obama… I told you this would be a walk in the park… I just actually agree this time LOL

  • JBartcaps

    Less talk, more action. lololololol

  • Shorter White House “You should have the right to unlock your phone after your contract is up.” Which you already do. Thanks for the sentiment WH.

    • Actually, right now you don’t. It is currently illegal to unlock your Tmo phone for AT&T for instance.

      • drewbie_al

        …without the carrier’s blessing.

        • Yea, forgot to add that. Tmo is actually pretty lax in giving unlock codes but it was the simplest example I could think of.

  • Susan

    Great minds think alike!