Obama: Consumers Should be Able to Unlock their Cell Phones

Obama: Consumers Should be Able to Unlock their Cell Phones

White House responds to online petition calling for it to reverse Librarian of Congress’ earlier decision to end cell phones’ exemption to the DMCA.

Last October the Librarian of Congress quietly rolled out a new ruling that ended the longstanding exemption granted to cell phones to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and once the word got out, the uproar was immediate.

The ruling states, in part, that since carriers’ allow you to unlock phones and that there are unlocked phones available for purchase, that it didn’t really see the need to keep the exemption in place.

It reads:

The Register concluded after a review of the statutory factors that an exemption to the prohibition on circumvention of mobile phone computer programs to permit users to unlock ‘‘legacy’’ phones is both warranted and unlikely to harm the market for such programs. At the same time, in light of carriers’ current unlocking policies and the ready availability of new unlocked phones in the marketplace, the record did not support an exemption for newly purchased phones.

It gave consumers 90 days a transitional period to unlock their phones, after which time it became a federal crime to do so. Hence, people who purchased their phones after Jan 26th and unlock them are now subject to $2,500 in fines.

An online campaign was started that petitioned the White House to address the issue, and the effort made clear that the consumers would be harmed by the ruling.

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

It points out the LOC said that there unlocked phones available, but counters the “great majority of phones sold are still locked.”

“We ask that the White House ask the Librarian of Congress to rescind this decision, and failing that, champion a bill that makes unlocking permanently legal,” it says.

The White House has responded to that petition, and says that it agrees wholeheartedly, adding that the petition didn’t go far enough, that even tablets ought to be included.

It writes:

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.

Of particular concern pointed out by the WH is of secondhand or other mobile devices that one might buy or receive as a present. It says that consumers should then have the “flexibility” to choose a carrier that meets THEIR needs and NOT the needs of the previous owner.

So what does it think should be done? The WH thinks narrow legislation should be crafted that makes it clear that “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,” it adds. “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.”

It lastly asks that mobile providers “consider” ways to help customers “fully reap the benefits and features they expect when purchasing their devices,” but I’m sure that we can all agree that they are unlikely to make it very easy for customers to switch providers.

For its part the LOC responded to the WH’s announcement by stating that it was merely doing its job, that “rulemaking is a technical, legal proceeding,” and was never “intended to be a substitute for deliberations of broader public policy.”

“”However, as the U.S. Copyright Office has recognized many times, the 1201 rulemaking can often serve as a barometer for broader policy concerns and broader policy action,” it continues. “The most recent rulemaking has served this purpose.”

Indeed it has, and hopefully the WH can convince Congress to side with consumers on the issue.

Stay tuned.

[email protected] | @jaredmoya