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Will It Soon be Legal to Unlock Your Cell Phone?

Kenneth Corbin | Feb. 22, 2013
An online petition seeking to legitimize unlocking cell phones has obtained more than the 100,000 signatures required to elicit an official response from the Obama administration regarding whether consumers should be allowed to unlock their cell phones--which is currently a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

"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," Michael Altschul, a senior vice president and legal counsel for CTIA, said in an emailed statement.

"Customers have numerous options when purchasing mobile devices," he adds. "They may choose to purchase devices at full price with no lock, or at a substantially discounted price -- typically hundreds of dollars less than the full price -- by signing a contract with a carrier. When the contract terms are satisfied, or for a reason that is included in the carrier's unlocking policy -- such as a trip outside the U.S. -- carriers will unlock a phone at their customer's request."

In its ruling, the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress affirmed the industry's contention that consumers have ample access to unlocked devices.

"While it is true that not every wireless device is available unlocked, and wireless carriers' unlocking polices are not free from all restrictions, the record clearly demonstrates that there is a wide range of alternatives from which consumers may choose in order to obtain an unlocked wireless phone," the Copyright Office wrote in its ruling.

Under the DMCA, first-time offenders who unlock a phone face a penalty of a fine of $500,000 and up to five years in jail.

Khanifer and other opponents of the unlocking restrictions contend that carriers already protect the subsidies that they offer for new phones in the form of early termination fees that penalize subscribers from ending their contracts before the term expires. And in the success of the petition, he sees broad support for the ability to unlock any and all handsets.

"I think reaching 100,000 signatures shows that people really do care about this issue, and want to be able to unlock their phones," Khanifer says.

The White House did not immediately respond to questions about the administration's position on unlocking phones or when an official response to the petition could be expected.


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