White House says it should be legal to unlock cellphones

The White House said Monday that it should be legal for consumers to unlock their cellphones to work with multiple wireless networks without carrier permission.

The administration made its comments in response to a proposal submitted to its “We the People” petition Web site, which earned 114,322 signatures since it first appeared Jan. 24.

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In October 2012, the Library of Congress created an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, allowing consumers to unlock their phones. That rule expired Jan. 26. The White House’s telecommunications policy arm, the National Telecommunications Information Administration, had advised the Library of Congress to renew its policy to allow unlocking. Still, the Library of Congress decided to discontinue the exemption.

Some carriers and cellphone manufacturers offer unlocked devices, but consumers who wished to alter their phones on their own have been in a legal gray area. Unlocking a phone gives consumers the option of taking their personal device with them from carrier to carrier if they are dissatisfied with their service. It also provides more options for smartphone resellers.

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,” R. David Edelman, a White house senior adviser on Internet issues, said in a response to the petition.

In a response of its own to the White House statement, the Library of Congress said that it agrees that the “question of locked cell phones” would benefit from further review, but that its rulemaking function was not intended to be a “substitute” for broader public policy, and its rulemaking alone cannot make lasting policy changes.

“It does not permit the U.S. Copyright Office to create permanent exemptions to the law,” the statement said.

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