White House Opposes Ban on Cellphone Unlocking

Tuesday, 05 Mar 2013 12:04 PM

By Lisa Barron

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The White House on Monday expressed support for the right of consumers to unlock their cellphones without risking penalties once the terms of any contract have been fulfilled.

“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,” wrote R. David Edelman, an Obama administration adviser on Internet and privacy issues, on the White House website.

“It’s common sense, crucial for protecting consumer choice.”

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The posting was in response to a petition in support of reversing a cellphone-unlocking ban that went into effect Jan. 26. The “Make Unlocking Cell Phones Legal” petition received more than 114,300 digital signatures on the White House website.

Mobile phones are normally sold locked, meaning they can be used only with service from the wireless carrier that sold the device, typically at a discounted price subsidized by that company.

Consumers wanting to keep their phone but change carriers have had to unlock it themselves, or with the help of a tech expert, by punching in a code assigned to the device.

The wireless industry has fought to ban that practice, and last fall the Library of Congress, which has oversight of certain copyright issues, agreed to do so, saying cellphones should be subject to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that was passed in 1998.

In a statement on Monday, Michael Altschul, general counsel for CTIA, a trade group of carriers, reiterated the industry’s stance. “Customers have numerous options when purchasing mobile devices,” he said. “They may choose to purchase devices at full price with no lock, or at a substantially discounted price — typically hundreds of dollars less than the full price — by signing a contract with a carrier.”

Under the Library of Congress’ rules, wireless carriers can collect statutory civil damages of between $200 and $2,500 per violation of the ban and criminal penalties of up to $500,000, five years in prison or both for the first offense.

The Federal Communications Commission, for its part, has joined the White House in backing the position of web activists campaigning against the ban.

“This raises serious competition and innovation concerns, and for wireless consumers, it doesn’t pass the common-sense test,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in a statement on Monday. “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.”

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