Cell Phone Unlocking Petition Gains Support From Obama Administration

The Obama Administration responded today to a We the People petition to make cell phone unlocking legal, throwing its full support behind the initiative. The petition and White House response follow an October 2012 decision by the Library of Congress to make unlocking cell phones illegal.

Anyone is allowed to create a petition on We the People, a White House website that allows citizens to directly petition their government. The White House has committed to responding to petitions that acquire over 100,000 signatures. The petition to “Make Unlocking Cell Phones Legal” has acquired 114,322 signatures since it was published on January 24. The petition briefly states its primary reason for concern:

“As of January 26, consumers will no longer be able unlock their phones for use on a different network without carrier permission, even after their contract has expired.

Consumers will be forced to pay exorbitant roaming fees to make calls while traveling abroad. It reduces consumer choice, and decreases the resale value of devices that consumers have paid for in full.”

Internet, Innovation, and Privacy Senior Advisor David Edelman wrote the official White House response, entitled “It’s Time to Legalize Cell Phone Unlocking.” He stated:

“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 Federal Communications Commission also issued a brief statement of its own today:

“From a communications policy perspective, [the recent Library of Congress decision] 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.”

Unlocking a cell phone allows a consumer to expand the functionality that comes with their phone. Unlocking a phone is sometimes the only way to uninstall unwanted applications that come pre-installed on a phone or install updates on a device that is no longer supported. Mobile providers have generally looked down on the practice because it allows a consumer to use their devices in ways a provider may not like.

The White House calls for narrow legislative fixes that would make it clear that neither criminal law nor technological locks should prevent consumers from switching carriers when they are no longer bound by a contract. The Obama Administration also urges mobile providers to take steps to ensure that customers can fully reap the benefits and features they expect when purchasing a device. While no binding policy has yet been announced, petitioners can breathe easier knowing the executive branch of government has strongly come out in agreement that cell phone unlocking should be legal.

[Image via ShutterStock]