White House: It's time to legalize cell phone unlocking

White House: It's time to legalize cell phone unlocking

Summary: The Obama Administration is making its opinion about cell phone unlocking crystal clear in a new memo.


In what is sure to draw the attention (and disdain) of mobile providers nationwide, the Obama Administration is arguing that it's time to legalize cell phone unlocking.

In a follow up to a petition to the President, R. David Edelman, senior advisor for Internet, Innovation, & Privacy, penned the response, declaring the White House's stance is 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."

Here's an excerpt from the memo issued on Monday:

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.

Edelman also noted that the White House has been working with telecommunications, technology, and copyright policy experts on this topic.

However, aside from putting some added pressure on mobile providers to take all of this into consideration as well as noting that the Federal Communications Commission has some responsibility here, Edelman refrained from commenting about any more action on this matter from the Oval Office.

Thus, don't expect any changes concerning cell phone locking to happen overnight, at the very least.

For now, this matter is in the hands of the FCC.

The commission's chairman, Julius Genachowski, also issued a statement on Monday, asserting that "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."

Genachowski added that the FCC will be "examining this issue" to determine whether or not it should take action, suggesting to Congress that it should also "consider a legislative solution."

Topics: Mobility, Government, Government US, Legal, Smartphones

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Might have missed something here

    Wasn't it legal until January? And only bot made illegal then?

    Anyway, can't you just get it unlocked wherever like here in blighty, legal or not?
    • Things are slightly different in the us.

      For one all UK phones are gsm, and there is a long history of intense operator competition through number of national carriers.

      The sheer size of the states has lead to a number of regional carriers. Where as here there are the "big 5" plus a large number of secondary networks using leasing their signal, the US has a "big four" when it comes to national coverage. T-mobile is the smallest in this group by quite a majority.

      The remainders are Verizon, AT&T and sprint. One of the factors that postponed the ability to unlock phones was that Verizon uses CDMA, AT&T uses GSM, and sprints former guise used iDEN. So unless you had a phone which could use multi networks, you weren't able to switch anyway. This put far more power in the hands of the networks. Whereas in the UK where anyone with an old nokia could spend a fiver unlocking any phone, not everyone was able to do this. For example, my experience with AT&T (whom I chose at the time so I could use my phone in Europe) was that they would simply not unlock my phone even once it's service plan was completed. They have now started unlocking phones as far as I know.

      That said, tesco mobile made the news here last year charging 80 pounds to unlock blackberry's at the end on their contract that cost 120 new... So it's not all that fair here either.
      • That is what I've been told

        I've been told by friends living in the UK that cell phone unlocking is more friendly. I guess living here in the oligarchy, corporate fascist land called the USA is not so free.

        There should be no reason you can't move you phone from carrier to carrier.
        • Agreed

          It's very monopolistic. Like the rail barons of 1880's.
      • It's legal here in Brasil

        Down here in Brasil even if you are bound by a contract the operator is obligated to unlock it if you want to, you just need to take your phone to a physical store of that operator. The mobile operators down here keep you in leash with your monthly subscription, but it won't stop you from using another sim on the device anyway, after you asked to unlock it.
  • I suggest introducing legislation

    That won't make the mobile providers or Apple happy, and they appear to have plenty of allies in Congress, but this shouldn't be something that the Librarian of Congress can arbitrarily change. And since this isn't really a partisan issue, I think the President can get a bill passed if he makes it a priority.
    John L. Ries
    • RE: I suggest introducing legislation in response to John L Ries

      Apple does not have a problem with unlocking phones. They sell Unlocked Iphone's themselves. The locked phone issue is on the carrier side during contract as far a ATT is concerned. I am not sure about others.
      Apple does not want you to jailbreak the phone in order to access apps outside the Apples app store. Though Jailbreaking or Rooting is not illegal. They only state it can void your warranty but anyone with half a brain can jailbreak there phone and remove the jaibreak if needed and take it back to stock. Since it is a software hack Apple store employees cannot tell if you need your phone warrantied.
      The problem here lies in the the current head of the FCC taking a copyright/patent stance on the issue by lumping it into the DMCA . I sometimes wonder if he is a complete idiot and does not quite understand the different between intellectual property rights vs hardware.
      The President cannot randomly make the FCC change the law without approval of congress and even then the FCC does actually act unto itself without seeking congressional approval.
      Legislation is the way to take the FCC out of the equation though.
      Of course calling Congress to act upon this as well as the President at this time is kind of a joke. They can't even come to terms on budget cuts, spending and a budget. Hence Sequestration which was specifically designed to make them come to terms and it has failed.
      • You bring up the real issue

        Why is the president wasting his time on this? It should have nothing to do with the government unless it effects the health and welfare of people.
        • I'm willing to bet POTUS is not spending any time on this.

          All Presidents have a staff. I'm willing to bet that someone mentioned this in a meeting somewhere and he turned to his Chief of Staff and said, can you have someone look into this.

          I'd also add that, as long as the wireless carriers in this country (unlike many other countries) continue to artificially stifle competition, control all available hardware very tightly, and generally screw the consumer for their own profit; then it certainly IS in the best interest of the people for the government to do its job and regulate this interstate commerce.

          A beautiful example of this comes in the form of the ASUS PadFone. Ever heard of it? Probably not. That's because ALL of the U.S. wireless carriers have basically banned it. The device essentially turns the mobile handset into a tablet and then 'laptop-ish' form factor. So you have ll of your data and apps in one 'brain' but get the functionality of the different form factors. (And no, it's nothing like that lame Motorola offering from last year.) But, here is the kicker, and why U.S. carriers don't want to see it in hit our shores; it allows you to do all this with only ONE data plan. Think of all the people (not me, for sure) who buy multiple data plans for their phones and tablets. What if all that annuity revenue were to disappear?

          Fear not, though. I wouldn't expect Congress to spend any time on this. About the only thing that they can agree on is when to take a recess. I'm guessing there won't be any useful legislation passed in this country until one party or the other has a super majority and the White House.

          Just my 2.34 cents.
          Shaugn Davenport
          • That's fine

            Though I think White House staffs are way too big and have been since at least Richard Nixon was President (Nixon deliberately concentrated authority in his staff on the theory that cabinet officers listened too much to civil service careerists). It seems to be that the President's principal deputies should be his cabinet officers, not his senior staffers, whose primary responsibility should be to keep the President organized and properly briefed.

            In all cases, however, White House staffers act on the President's behalf and he is personally responsible for what they do. And an effective President has a very good idea of what his staffers and cabinet officers are doing (like any good boss).
            John L. Ries
        • I agree except

          I agree except since we the people have no power over the mega-corps someone has to go to bat for us. The mega-corps hold a power that is equal to small governments and therefore need to have a large entity that can fight back. When did corps get so big, so powerful and hold court over our lives?
        • In which case...

          ...change the law. The DMCA should never have been passed, much less passed by voice vote after minimal debate. It should be repealed, but taking away the discretion of the Librarian of Congress to determine what fair use is would be an improvement (that should be written into the statute with any disputes decided by the courts, as usual).
          John L. Ries
        • Potus and unlocking phones

          He has become involved because the White House has stated that if any electronic petition exceeds 100,000 signatures the White House will issue a statement about it. Back when Bill Clinton was President and we used 1200 baud modems he had two people looking sat e-mails every day to see what people had to say. When GWB became President all E-mails to Wihitehouse.gov went to auto delete because he could care less what people had to say. Obama does want to get involved.
          As for cell phone unlocking it is real simple , charge everyone the full price for phones and they can try to switch all they want and charge everyone monthly for their bills prepaid. Otherwise sign an ironclad contract and get locked in for 2 years and get the phone cheaper and pay for it over a longer duration.
        • who the government is servering?

          The groups who will be benificial from the law are the service providers, not the public.

          Those groups are the potential financial donaters and supportors to the US government.

          Thus, the US government is trying to please those groups
    • Yes, it's partisan, it's corporate.

      Everything in Washington is partisan right now. The fact is that the cell carriers want as much power to retain customers as possible, the locks keep customers tied. It's absurd that the government declared it illegal after the contractual obligation has been satisfied to unlock a phone. Republicans worship corporate America, there is no higher calling in their minds than serving their Masters.

      By this time tomorrow Fox news will be reporting that Obama want's all phones unlocked all the time, and that it's his master plan to take over the cell phone companies. Of course it'll be partisan, sadly. Seems right and wrong, decent and reasonable, carrying about people, and the truth have left Washington DC years ago. The drama of professional wrestling is all we have left. No, i don't want to see Boehner in tights, the fake tan is embarrassing enough.
  • Don't like...

    The way the wording said several times "and aren't bound by a service agreement or other obligation", which could be interpreted that you can not unlock your phone while in a contract. For people that want to travel overseas or sell their cell before their service agreement is up, this seems like its a way to try and satisfy both parties, while really not being that useful.
    • Exactly

      If you're in a contract - no unlock.
      • However

        I would assume that you can do like anyone wanting to switch providers or upgrade phones early, but out the rest o your contract through your ETF, this completing the purchase of said phone and then you're good.
        • Re:

          Which is, I believe, how it works everywhere else in the world.

          To be honest, I still don't fully understand why U.S. carriers think device locking is necessary or helpful in binding customers. That's what the contract is for. The sell you a phone for less, and in return you sign a contract for a year or two. That's it, you'll have to pay them whether you stick with their service or not. If you change while your contract is still running, you pay double. What's the loss for the original carrier? They still get all your subscription fees, as they would have otherwise. Do they want to get out of having to offer you a new phone after your contract's up? Somehow I doubt that this would make enough of a difference to warrant all of this.
  • Unlocked Phone.

    If I like a phone and the option to switch providers, I guess I will have to buy the phone out right.
    I agree that we should have a providers permission, then mt question is if I sell my Phone with company "X" to a person and they unlock it to use on Company "Y" who will be charged? if no permission at this time given. how will this affect phones that are bought from the manufacturer that comes already unlocked? Will each phone have to be registered before use, like the old days before sim cards came out??