Obama administration urges FCC to require carriers to unlock mobile devices

September 17, 2013

Several months after calling for legislation to unlock cellphones, the White House filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday asking that all wireless carriers be required to unlock all mobile devices so that users can easily switch between carriers.

The proposal from the administration’s tech policy arm follows up on President Obama’s response last spring to furious complaints from online activists after the Library of Congress made the practice illegal in January when an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act expired. The activists posted their complaint on the White House’s protest forum and collected over 114,000 signatures on their petition to overturn the Library of Congress decision.

In March, the Obama administration said that consumers should be allowed to own “unlocked” phones, which spurred new bill proposals and committee discussions about the issue. The FCC also said it supported cellphone unlocking.

But, while there have been small steps toward making cellphone unlocking standard, the idea had lost some momentum, and the administration appears to be trying to bring it back into the legislative arena.

Some argue that making it legal to unlock cellphones could make it too easy for consumers to take copyrighted software between carriers. But in Tuesday’s petition to the FCC, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration said that allowing unlocked devices would increase competition and consumer choice, while also putting the burden of changing networks on companies rather than consumers.

“Americans should be able to use their mobile devices on whatever networks they choose and have their devices unlocked without hassle,” said Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary of the NTIA.

Politicians and advocacy groups were swift to commend the NTIA for its action.

“This is an issue of consumer choice and flexibility, plain and simple. We are appreciative of the support of groups like NTIA and we will all continue working to see that this issue of significant importance to most Americans is addressed,” said Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Howard Coble (R-N.C.), Mel Watt (D-N.C.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

George Slover, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, said that the NTIA proposal was particularly notable because it extends unlocking privileges to tablets, as well as cellphones.

“This proposal is encouraging because it seeks to expand unlocking capabilities to more consumers and more wireless devices -- including tablets -- something Consumers Union has also called for, Slover said. “Consumers need a solution to this problem, and we hope that lawmakers and regulators can work to solve this important consumer issue.”

Public Knowledge, a D.C.-based public interest group, said that it took the White House’s action as a sign that the administration continues to support cellphone unlocking, but noted that there must be larger changes to copyright law as a whole.

“While new rules along the lines of those suggested by the petition can do a lot to alleviate the unlocking problem, we still face a copyright system that requires agencies and industries entirely unrelated to copyright to jump through hoops just to reach commonsense results. This doesn’t just suggest that FCC rules need to change; it suggest that copyright law must change as well.”

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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