White House backs letting consumers unlock cellphones and tablets

Despite a federal ban on unlocking cellphones that went into effect in January, the White House says consumers should be able to do so and has pledged to support legislation to make it legal.

The Obama administration said Monday that consumers deserve the flexibility to unlock their phones and tablets, allowing them to use a device with a wireless carrier other than the one from which they bought it.


Users unlock phones when they want to switch carriers or to use their mobile devices abroad without incurring massive roaming charges. Depending on the type of cellphone, a phone can be unlocked by the owner or by a third-party business, usually by inputting a series of numbers or running a software program.

Starting Jan. 26, it became illegal for consumers to unlock their mobile devices without the carrier’s permission because of a change to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The new rule applies only to phones purchased after the ban went into effect.

Amid consumer outcry, a petition was created Jan. 24 that urged the Obama administration to consider making it legal to unlock phones. The petition has since garnered more than 114,300 signatures, leading to Monday’s announcement.

“The White House agrees with the 114,000-plus of you who believe that consumers should be able to unlock their cellphones without risking criminal or other penalties,” the White House said in a statement. “It’s common sense, crucial for protecting consumer choice, and important for ensuring we continue to have the vibrant, competitive wireless market that delivers innovative products and solid service to meet consumers’ needs.”

Unlocking smartphones is particularly important to users who wish to sell their phones or buy used ones, the White House said.

In conjunction with the White House’s response, Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said his agency is encouraging Congress to consider a legislative solution.

“From a communications policy perspective, this raises serious competition and innovation concerns, and for wireless consumers, it doesn’t pass the common-sense test,” he said in a statement. “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.”

Sina Khanifar of San Francisco, one of the people who started the petition that led to the response, said he had spoken with White House officials and was glad to hear of their support.

He said he encouraged the White House to push for amending Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which banned unlocking cellphones to protect proprietary software. The law was passed by Congress in 1998, but the Copyright Office, which reviews the act every three years, temporarily exempted unlocked phones from its provisions in 2006 and 2010.

“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,’” Khanifar said. “The optimist in me is really glad to have proved them wrong.”

Despite the ban, it’s unclear whether it is being enforced or whether consumers and third-party businesses have stopped unlocking phones.

“I’ve never heard of any enforcement action on this,” said Kyle Wiens, chief executive of online tech repair community IFixIt. “There almost hasn’t been any time for prosecution to have happened yet.”