White House agrees with common sense: phone unlocking should not be illegal

Word from on high is that cellphone unlocking may be restored to its proper legal place.

The best news I've heard in a long time is, simply, this: Barack Obama and his staff think the Librarian of Congress got it wrong.

A little while back, a little-seen legal change went into effect, making it basically illegal to go ahead and unlock a phone purchased from a cellular carrier (or make it able to work on bandwidths other than the one your carrier uses). Then a petition went up on the official White House petition platform, stating that, as one writer for The Atlantic put it, it's anti-consumer, anti-business, anti-common-sense.

Now the White House has responded. In short, as our news service puts it, unlocking mobile phones should be legal. But the text of the response, and the work that went into it, is impressive.

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.

That's the gist of it. But beyond the simple disagreement, there are two more key points. First, both the administration and the Librarian of Congress seem to agree that leaving it up to a single, small government entity to determine all the exemptions and inclusions to the large Digital Millenium Copyright Act is not a smart move:

(I)t is also worth noting the statement the Library of Congress released today on the broader public policy concerns of the issue. Clearly the White House and Library of Congress agree that the DMCA exception process is a rigid and imperfect fit for this telecommunications issue, and we want to ensure this particular challenge for mobile competition is solved.

There's no single path forward from this statement, as the response mentions "narrow legislative fixes," FCC action, the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) pushing the FCC, pushing mobile providers, and "continuing to work with Congress." That last bit sounds just a bit off-putting of late, no?

In any case: the White House agrees that making it illegal for an individual to unlock a phone is ridiculous. What happens next is, hopefully, a reversal of that law, before technology moves once more past the law-writers in Washington.

Read more of Kevin Purdy's Mobilize! blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kevinpurdy. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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