Fight over cellphone unlocking pulls in FCC: report

The cell phone unlocking ban, which went into effect last month, has drawn the ire of activists. 

A man speaks on his mobile phone while standing next to posters advertising an Apple iPhone 5 and Blackberry Z10 in Ahmedabad, India, in February of 2013.

Last October, the Librarian of Congress ruled that under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, consumers could not unlock most smart phones or tablets without carrier permission. (Good breakdown here of what devices are exempted, courtesy of Digital Trends.) That federal policy went into effect late last month, meaning that people may not ditch one carrier and move their smart phones over to another without permission. Not exactly great news for consumers, obviously. 

As activists wrote in a petition sent to the White House in January, the new law forces consumers "to pay exorbitant roaming fees to make calls while traveling abroad. It reduces consumer choice, and decreases the resale value of devices that consumers have paid for in full." The petition subsequently received 100,000 signatures, meaning that the US government is obligated to issue an official response of one kind or another. 

In fact, TechCrunch reported yesterday, the FCC may step into the fray, and launch an investigation into the legality of issuing a ban on unlocking. The "ban raises competition concerns; it raises innovation concerns," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told TechCrunch. 

In that regard, Genachowski isn't alone. 

"This is an issue of property rights — whether you own your phone or not," Derek Khanna, a Yale fellow and Internet activist, said in an interview with USA Today this week. "This is an issue of crony capitalism where two companies (AT&T and Verizon) asked for the laws to be changed to their benefit. And this really is an issue about stifling innovation."

Of course, an investigation could take months, and there's no guarantee the FCC would be able to strike down the ban, even if regulators did rule against it. 

"While the FCC can bring greater visibility to the issue, it's not clear if the agency has any authority to fix the problem," writes Timothy B. Lee of Ars Technica. "Congress gave the power to grant exemptions to the Librarian of Congress, and the process for granting those exemptions only occurs once every three years." 

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