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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.

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Parker Higgins, an EFF activist, says the controversy surrounding locked phones shows that the Library of Congress' rules surrounding copyright infringement may be causing more harm than good.

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"I can understand that the Library of Congress doesn't really get the significance of how technology is being used, but really across the board this rule-making procedure is not the way that policy should be made,” Mr. Higgins says.

Unlocking versus jailbreaking

There is another issue, however, that the petition and the White House does not address, Higgins says. The DMCA’s restrictions also extend to jailbreaking.

Jailbreaking, not to be confused with unlocking, is the act of removing restrictions on what software one can install on a phone. For example, some people jailbreak an iPhone to access apps that are not offered in the App Store. Unlocking only allows you to change the carrier your phone is on.

The EFF won a renewal of exemptions to the DMCA including jailbreaking rights for smart phones (but not tablets). The DMCA’s restrictions also prohibit jailbreaking tablets, game consoles, and other personal devices, controlling which devices and operating systems consumers can use for certain video subscriptions and other services, the EFF statement notes.

Jay Freeman, the administrator of the app store for jailbroken Apple devices known as Cydia, told Forbes that the rules criminalize jailbreaking tablets and unlocking phones and that iPad jailbreakers also need to be exempted.

“It’s important to realize that the [White House's statement] is very narrow,” Mr. Freeman told Forbes. “We definitely need a different campaign, one that focuses on the root problem: that the DMCA’s 1201 anti-tampering clause is confusing, limiting, and generally really annoying.”

Higgins says the White House response did not help clear up the distinction between unlocking and jailbreaking. While the statement addressed unlocking tablets, it did not acknowledge that tablets are more often associated with jailbreaking than unlocking.

"I think that people should be allowed to unlock their iPads, just as people unlock their iPhones, but I think another important question should be about jailbreaking," Higgins says.

“It shouldn’t fall to the representatives of the public — in this case, us — to have to try to explain to the Library of Congress what these things are and why they’re useful,” he adds. “It should be by default. If you own the device, you should be able to do what you want by it.”

For more tech news, follow Steph on Twitter: @stephmsolis

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