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White House opposes restrictions on unlocking cellphones

The Obama administration came out in favor of legalizing unlocking cellphones on Monday. The statement raises questions about what restrictions the Digital Millennial Copyright Act places on consumers with its ban on unlocking personal devices.

By Steph Solis / March 5, 2013

In this AP file photo, President Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Feb. 13. The Obama administration came out in support of laws changing the restrictions on unlocking cellphones on Monday.

Charles Dharapak/Pool/AP

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The White House and the Federal Communications Commission have joined opponents criticizing the Library of Congress' new provisions against unlocking cellphones.

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Under current law, consumers cannot take phones they have purchased from one network and use them when they sign with another, even after their previous contracts have expired. They also have to pay roaming fees when abroad, as they cannot insert a local SIM card to a locked phone.

The White House issued a statement Monday in support of laws that change the Library of Congress' restrictions on unlocking cellphones under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act

R. David Edelman, senior advisor for Internet, Innovation & Privacy, released a statement on behalf of the White House supporting a petition proposing that consumers should be able to unlock their cellphones, tablets, and other devices without criminal or other penalties.

“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,” the statement reads.

The Library of Congress established federal copyright penalties for unlocking a cellphone, which kicked in on Jan. 26. Criminal penalties include a $500,000 fine and/or five years in prison for the first offense. Wireless carriers can collect statutory civil damages ranging from $200 and $2,500 per violation.

More than 114,000 people signed a petition asking the Library of Congress to rescind the new DMCA provisions, which kicked in on Jan. 26. Cellphones were previously exempted from DMCA regulations.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski also expressed concerns about the DMCA rules about unlocking cellphones.

"From a communications policy perspective, this raises serious competition and innovation concerns, and for wireless consumers, it doesn't pass the common sense test,” Mr. Genachowski says in a statement. “The FCC is examining this issue, looking into whether the agency, wireless providers, or others should take action to preserve consumers' ability to unlock their mobile phones.

The White House’s statement notes the Library of Congress agrees that the issue has implications for telecommunications policy and would benefit from review.

The Obama administration would support “narrow legislative fixes” to ensure that neither criminal law nor technological locks prevent consumers from switching carriers after they complete a service agreement.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation praised the White House’s stance: “Your rights to reuse, resell, or give away devices are especially important—and the Obama administration gets this. As the administration’s telecommunications agency pointed out last year, digital locks backed up by legal threats aren’t just used to police copyrights—they’re used to block competition.”

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