Nine months after it became a copyright violation to unlock your cell phone without permission, the White House has asked the Federal Communications Commission to do something about it.
This week, the U.S. Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration filed a petition with the FCC, asking it to end the ban on unlocking wireless devices. The ban took effect in January, after the Librarian of Congress refused to exempt unlocking from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
"Americans should be able to use their mobile devices on whatever networks they choose and have their devices unlocked without hassle," NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling said in a statement. The administration first showed its opposition to the ban in March, after a petition to the White House collected more than 100,000 signatures.
In many cases, users already can unlock their cell phones, allowing them to work on other wireless networks without running afoul of copyright law. Most wireless carriers, for instance, will unlock your phone upon request as long as your account is in good standing.
But there are some cases where users aren't free to unlock their phones. AT&T, for instance, will not unlock on-contract iPhones, so if you're in the middle of a two-year agreement, you can't use a SIM card from another carrier while traveling abroad. Also, the requirement that users' accounts must be in good standing can make it difficult to unlock a phone that you've just purchased, or purchased second-hand.
The NTIA wants the FCC to immediately start considering ways to lift the ban on unlocking in these cases. "As long as the original customer has complied with any contractual service obligations, and the mobile service provider does not have reasonable evidence that the wireless device was obtained unlawfully, the provider should unlock the device," the petition says.
Checks and balances
That part about "contractual service obligations" is important, because it addresses wireless carriers' concerns about protecting their business models, which revolve around subsidized phones and two-year commitments. Being able to unlock a phone has nothing to do with getting out of your contract early. It simply means you have more carrier choice if you buy an off-contract phone, or if you're planning to spend time overseas.
"Operators can--as they currently do--effectively prevent consumers from subverting that model through long-term service contracts, enforced by penalties or fees for early termination," the NTIA's petition notes.
It's unclear how the FCC will respond. While former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski seemed open to FCC action, he resigned in March. His likely successor, Tom Wheeler, opposes the ban, but still needs full Senate approval to become Chairman. Meanwhile, commissioner Ajit Pai said in June that he supports legislative action instead of aggressive moves by the FCC.
In other words, the White House's petition isn't going to solve the matter on its own, but at least it's a sign that the issue hasn't fallen off the radar.