In a response to a We The People petition the White House says “it’s time to legalize cell phone unlocking.”
In the response the White House says it wants to make it legal for users to unlock their cell phones and tablets when they’re not bound by a service agreement. For users that would mean they can move devices between carriers as long as the device isn’t tied to a contract of some sort.
As the White House notes, the ability to unlock devices is important for secondhand devices either given to or purchased by users. Users should have the right to bring a secondhand phone to the mobile carrier of their choice without fear of criminal charges. Under the current law, that is not the case.
Under the current law, AT&T will unlock an out of contract phone for a current AT&T customer or a former one if the account is or was in good standing and other criteria are met. It is not legal for a user who bought an AT&T iPhone second hand to go to a third-party service for an unlock if the phone was originally sold after January 26th, 2013.
The White House response doesn’t mean that users can legally unlock their smartphones or tablets right away. The White House still needs to work with the Library of Congress as well as Congress and the mobile industry to make unlocking devices legal again.
Earlier this year the Librarian of Congress decided to remove mobile phones’ exemption from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which resulted in the ban on unlocking phones. Now the Library of Congress and the White House agree that restoring the exemption wouldn’t meet the demands of the mobile industry.
The White House calls the DMCA exemption process “a rigid and imperfect fit for this telecommunications issue.” Instead, the Obama Administration “would support a range of approaches to addressing this issue, including narrow legislative fixes in the telecommunications space.”
For many users unlocking phones isn’t a common occurrence, but for some the issue is important. Unlocking phones is necessary in the previous example of secondhand devices, as well as for international travelers. Users who take their phones overseas may want to swap their SIM for a local SIM card that offers cheaper rates than an international plan with a U.S. carrier.
Under current law, unless the phone’s SIM is already unlocked, like the Verizon iPhone 5, they legally have to rely on international phone plans.