The Librarian of Congress has made it illegal for consumers to unlock their smartphones without carrier consent under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The White House has publicly stated that consumers should be able to freely unlock their phones without the risk of criminal penalty or any other imposed punishment.
Unlocking a smartphone enables it to be used with another carrier. For example, legally, someone cannot switch over from AT&T to Sprint unless AT&T’s policy allowed them to, or unless the phone came shipped as unlocked.
Originally, after the policy was embraced in October, there was a grace period of 90 days, where it was legal for someone to buy a device and have it unlocked with their carrier of choice. That grace period ended on Jan. 26. Now it’s illegal to unlock your phone unless it ships as unlocked or the carrier allows it.
A Petition Is Circulated
Shortly after the LoC’s decision under the DMCA, an official petition spawned on the White House’s website, and over 114,000 people signed it. The petition stated that consumer choice is being taken away, and a big problem with that is the large roaming fee that usually comes along with traveling internationally. The petition asked that the Librarian of Congress rescind the decision to legally bind consumers to locked smartphones and single carriers.
The White House Responds
The White House called upon several experts from across the government: experts in technology fields, telecommunications, and copyright policy, to re-assess and discuss this issue.
In an official response, the White House agrees that consumer choice should be upheld and protected. The response letter also stated that it’s important for the smartphone and tablet industry to be part of a “vibrant, competitive wireless market.”
The letter goes on to state that the importance of having an unlocked device is particularly vital to consumers who either purchased their devices as used or received them as a gift; they should be able to choose a network that meets their needs.
However, in this situation, the Obama administration can only advice. Under the DMCA, the decision is entirely in the control of the LoC.
The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, supported keeping the previous exemption to the DMCA. The exemption was a publically-called-for request, which asked that an exception be added to the policy to “allow circumvention of technological protection measures controlling access to copyrighted software on cell phones,” (an official statement from the LoC states).
But the exemption has not been upheld by the LoC, and the ruling to keep unlocking illegal stands. The statement goes on to say that the LoC and the Register of Copyrights must consider exemptions, but must consider them based on “factual records” and whether or not the exemption is actually needed.
Still, the Obama Administration supports the petition and public opinion and wants to address the policy. The statement clearly reads that criminal law should not prevent consumers from unlocking their smartphones, and the Administration will continue to work with the Library of Congress and mobile industries in the future.