Skip to main content

White House thinks ‘illegal’ cell phone unlocking is just as stupid as you do

White House
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The White House today said it believes consumers should be legally able to unlock cell phones that are no longer on-contract with a wireless provider. This position comes in response to a successful “We the People” petition on WhiteHouse.gov, which asked the president to reverse the unlocking ban.

“The White House agrees with the 114,000+ of you who believe that consumers should be able to unlock their cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties,” wrote R. David Edelman, Obama’s Senior Advisor for Internet, Innovation, & Privacy. “In fact, we believe the same principle should also apply to tablets, which are increasingly similar to smart phones. And 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.”

This, said Edelman, is simply “common sense.”

Legalizing device unlocking is “particularly important for secondhand or other mobile devices that you might buy or receive as a gift, and want to activate on the wireless network that meets your needs – even if it isn’t the one on which the device was first activated,” Edelman added. “All consumers deserve that flexibility.”

This is the opposite conclusion the Librarian of Congress came to last October when the office decided to reverse an exemption for cell phone unlocking under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Unlocking alters so-called digital locks installed by wireless carriers, to prevent consumers from using their devices on other networks. The DMCA prohibits disabling digital locks, and the wireless industry was able to convince the Librarian that unlocking no longer deserved a DMCA exemption.

Unlocking officially became illegal at the end of January. While experts believe individuals will likely not be prosecuted for unlocking their devices for personal use, unlocking potentially carries severe punishment – a fine of up to $500,000, five years in prison, or both, for a first time offense. The penalties double for repeat offenders.

The White House says it hopes to change this through the passage of “narrow legislative fixes in the telecommunications space,” or through action by the Federal Communications Commission, which may have some authority over this area. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski backed the White House’s stance, saying in a statement (PDF) that the criminality of cell phone unlocking “raises serious competition and innovation concerns, and for wireless consumers, it doesn’t pass the common sense test.”

Genachowski added that the FCC is investigating “whether the agency, wireless providers, or others should take action to preserve consumers’ ability to unlock their mobile phones.” He also urged Congress to “take a close look and consider a legislative solution.”

The petition that elicited the White House response was launched on January 24 by San Francisco entrepreneur Sina Khanifar, who once faced legal action from Motorola after launching a business, Cell-Unlock.com, through which he sold software that allowed people to unlock their devices.

In an email with Digital Trends, Khanifar said he is “really glad” to see the White House’s response “on an issue that’s clearly very important to people.”

“This is a big victory for consumers, and I’m glad to have played a part in it,” said Khanifar. “A lot of people reacted skeptically when I originally started the petition, with lots of comments to the effect of ‘petitions don’t do anything.’ The optimist in me is really glad to have proved them wrong. The White House just showed that they really do listen, and that they’re willing to take action.”

Khanifar added that, while this response is a good first step, “the real culprit” is the 1201 provision of the DMCA, which makes it illegal to circumvent any digital locks, including DRM on music and movie files. “I discussed with the White House the potential of pushing to have that provision amended or removed, and they want to continue the discussion,” he said. 

Tomorrow, Khanifar, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reddit, the Mozilla Foundation, and others plan to launch a new campaign to push Congress to change S1201 of the DMCA, Khanifar said. We’ll have more information on this as it comes in. 

Updated with additional information from Khanifar.

(Image via dhorsey/Shutterstock)

Andrew Couts
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Features Editor for Digital Trends, Andrew Couts covers a wide swath of consumer technology topics, with particular focus on…
Best Samsung Prime Day deals: TVs, phones, monitors and more
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 5 on a flat surface with the purple Galaxy Buds 2 Pro TWS Bluetooth earbuds on the side.

Samsung is one of the hottest brands in this year's Prime Day deals, as you'll be able to take advantage of discounts on all kinds of electronic devices such as TVs, smartphones, and appliances. Whether you're thinking about buying directly from Samsung or from any of the popular retailers, you can be sure that there's something from these offers that will catch your eye. You're going to have to hurry with your purchase though, as Samsung Prime Day deals are expected to sell out quickly. Check out our favorite bargains below, but act fast if you don't want to miss the savings.
Samsung TV Prime Day deals

Samsung is one of the best TV brands, so there will surely be high demand from shoppers for Samsung Prime Day TV deals. However, while Samsung is known for its top-of-the-line TVs with all of the latest technologies, it also offers budget-friendly TVs that are going to be even more affordable during the shopping holiday. Stocks are expected to run out fast though, so if you see a Samsung TV that you want to buy for Prime Day, it's highly recommended that you push through with the transaction as soon as possible.

Read more
Best Google Pixel Prime Day deals: Phones, watches, earbuds
Comparison of Google Pixel 8 and 8a.

The Google Pixel brand, which started with smartphones but has since expanded into tablets, smartwatches, and wireless earbuds, is extremely popular among Android fans. That's why we think Google Pixel Prime Day deals are going to sell out quickly. The discounts for these devices from this year's Prime Day deals are going to attract a lot of attention, so we've rounded up our recommended offers below to help you decide faster than other shoppers. Stocks will go quickly, so choose the Google Pixel deals that you'll buy as soon as possible.
Google Pixel phone Prime Day deals

The main advantage of Google Pixel phones over other Android smartphones is that they're the first devices to receive any Android updates from Google, so you'll gain access to new features and receive security patches faster than others. You should be on the lookout for the Google Pixel 8, the Google Pixel 8 Pro, or the Google Pixel 8a -- the latest models of the smartphone -- if they would appear with discounts in this year's Google Pixel Prime Day smartphone deals.

Read more
The Apple AirTag Bluetooth tracker is super cheap for Prime Day this year
Person holding an Apple AirTag.

The Apple AirTag is a small device that can help you find just about anything. As a small Apple device, they're relatively inexpensive, but they're not cheap. A sort of fancy tech "snack" if you will. And that makes them a perfect inclusion among the best Prime Day deals. This early deal on Apple AirTags is also one of the best Prime Day Apple deals, and brings a single Apple AirTag down to $24 from $29 or a pack of four down to $75 from $99. That saves you $5 on the single or $24 off the pack of four ($6 each). Tap the appropriate button below to go buy your AirTags or keep reading to see more about why we like this deal.

Why you should buy Apple AirTags
The Apple ecosystem is huge. Apple knows how to leverage that with things like the Find My feature, which crowdsources finding lost Apple products. Using that same resource, they've come up with the humble AirTag. It's a small, poker chip style device that can be attached to anything, giving you the ability to track and find whatever you attach it to. To quote our Apple AirTag review, "if there's an iPhone within Bluetooth range of your AirTag, its location is updated, and you can see exactly where it is."

Read more