The Obama administration issued its support Monday of an effort to reverse a recently enacted ban on unlocking cellphones, echoing many customers' calls to allow mobile devices to be used across wireless carriers without risking penalties once any contract promise is fulfilled.
"If you have paid for your mobile device and aren't bound by a service agreement or other obligation, you should be able to use it on another network," wrote R. David Edelman, senior adviser for Internet, innovation and privacy at the White House, on WhiteHouse.gov.
His response was drafted after the White House received more than 114,000 petitions on its website in support of reversing the ban, which became effective Jan. 26.
"We believe the same principle should also apply to tablets," he said. "It's common sense, crucial for protecting consumer choice."
Mobile phones in the U.S. are generally sold "locked," making them usable only with service from the wireless carrier that is associated with the device, and are typically sold at a price subsidized by that carrier -- unlike in most other countries. In the past, customers wishing to keep their device but switch carriers unlocked it themselves or with the help of an expert by punching in a code assigned to the device.
The wireless carrier industry has fought to ban the practice, arguing that unlocking phones violates the carriers' copyright of the computer programs used to lock subsidized devices and are needed for carriers to be able to subsidize the upfront cost of the phone.
The Library of Congress, which largely oversees copyright issues and will implement the ban, sided with the industry by citing a section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that was passed in 1998.
In a statement, Michael Altschul, general counsel for CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group of carriers, reiterated the industry's stance that consumers have other options if they want to migrate to another carrier. "The Librarian of Congress concluded that an exemption was not necessary because the largest nationwide carriers have liberal, publicly available unlocking policies, and because unlocked phones are freely available in the marketplace -- many at low prices," he wrote.
Consumers can buy unlocked devices at full prices, and carriers will unlock a phone at a customer's request in some cases, such as for foreign travel, he said.
Last week, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski raised his concern that banning phone unlocking could be anti-competitive for consumers and repeated it Monday in a statement.
"This raises serious competition and innovation concerns, and for wireless consumers, it doesn't pass the common-sense test," he said. "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."
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