Policy

Obama Petitions FCC To Legalize Cellphone Unlocking

The Obama administration doesn't think you should go to prison if you unlock your cellphone and move over to a new carrier.

The administration on Tuesday sent a petition to the Federal Communications Commission asking it to come up with new rules to override a law scheduled to take effect on Jan. 26, 2014. The law would make it a crime punishable by up to five years in prison to unlock your cellphone without permission from your carrier.

This is an example of how the law would work: If you have an iPhone you purchased from AT&T, when your two-year contract is up and you've paid off the phone, you might decide you can get a better deal with T-Mobile. You want to take your paid-in-full iPhone with you to T-Mobile, but AT&T and other carriers lock the phones into their system. Starting next year, if you unlock without asking AT&T first you'll be violating the law.

In its petition, the Obama administration is asking the FCC to make rules that give consumers permission to unlock their phone if they own it outright. The petition also asked that consumers have the power to unlock tablets and other mobile devices.

The rule set to take effect in January came about as a result of a decision by the Library of Congress. Every three years it issues a ruling on exemptions to the copyright law. This time around it didn't renew an exemption for cellphones.

In February, Gayle Osterberg, a spokeswoman for the Library of Congress, told NPR that during the last review the library determined it was OK for companies to decide when to unlock a phone. "The evidence showed that the market has changed," she said. "There are a wide variety of new phones that are already available unlocked, and cellphone carriers have relaxed their unlocking policies."

Angry activists sent a petition with more than 114,000 signatures to the White House asking it to step in. A few months back the administration called Congress to make legislation to override the decision by the Library of Congress. But Congress has been slow to act. The administration's petition to the FCC appears to be a move to keep a spotlight on the issue.

The CTIA, which represents wireless carriers, issued a statement in response. It raised questions about the wisdom of unlocking cellphones without permission. The group said it was concerned the move "can facilitate the sale of stolen smartphones."

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