White House: Unlocking mobile phones should be legal

The Obama administration sides with 114,000 petition signers after unlocking was made illegal under the DMCA

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has sided with more than 100,000 petition signers who asked the government to legalize the unlocking of smartphones.

The White House on Monday agreed with petitioners who asked the Library of Congress to rescind a decision that removed the act of unlocking a smartphone from the legal exceptions under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Buyers of smartphones and tablets should be able to unlock their devices "without risking criminal or other penalties," R. David Edelman, White House senior adviser for Internet, innovation and privacy, wrote in response to the petition on Whitehouse.gov.

Phone unlocking entrepreneur Sina Khanifar started the petition in late January and more than 114,000 people signed it. The Obama administration has promised to respond to petitions that collect more than 100,000 signatures within a month.

Unlocking a phone is typically used to switch carriers. "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," Edelman wrote. "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."

A legal protection for unlocking mobile phones expired in late January after the Librarian of Congress decided to leave it out of a list of exemptions under the DMCA.

The Obama administration would support a "range of approaches" to addressing mobile phone unlocking, including legislation and action by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, Edelman wrote.

"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," he added.

The Library of Congress, in a statement, defended the rulemaking process used to review exemptions under the DMCA. The library did not indicate that it would change its decision.

"The rulemaking is a technical, legal proceeding and involves a lengthy public process," the library said. The proceeding is "based on a factual record developed by the proponents and other interested parties. The officials must consider whether the evidence establishes a need for the exemption based on several statutory factors."

The library's statement suggested a role for Congress or the administration in changing the unlocking rules.

The rulemaking process "was not intended to be a substitute for deliberations of broader public policy," the statement said. "[The] rulemaking can often serve as a barometer for broader policy concerns and broader policy action. The most recent rulemaking has served this purpose."

Khanifar, the petition starter, said he was happy to see the White House response. "As the White House said in the response, keeping unlocking legal is really 'common sense,' and I'm excited to see them recognizing this. David was enthusiastic about getting this fixed as quickly as possible," he wrote in an email. "This is a big victory for consumers, and I'm glad to have played a part in it."

Many people reacting to the petition expressed doubt that it would have an impact, he said. "The optimist in me is really glad to have proved them wrong," he said. "The White House just showed that they really do listen, and that they're willing to take action."

Derek Khanna, a copyright activist and author of a controversial House Republican Study Committee memo on copyright reform last November, also praised the White House decision.

"It shows the power of the people to affirmatively act to fix policy rather than just stop bad policy," he wrote in an email. "We the people have this power when we come together to fight for positive, common-sense solutions."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags governmentmobilesmartphonesregulationlegislationBarack Obamaconsumer electronicsU.S. Federal Communications CommissionU.S. White HouseU.S. Library of CongressSina KhanifarR. David EdelmanDerek Khanna

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