March 4, 2013 at 5:45 PM ET
A popular petition regarding the ability to "unlock" mobile phones has received a number of responses, first from the White House itself, and then from representatives of the FCC and the Library of Congress. The gist is: A rule's a rule, but we're going to look into it.
114,322 people signed the petition on the "We the People" online platform provided by the Whitehouse.gov, putting it well above the 100,000 signatures needed for an official administration response.
The petition was created Jan. 24, two days before a law banning unlocking mobile phones without permission from a wireless carrier took effect. Unlocking a phone allows it to be used on carriers other than the one where it was originally purchased.
The Librarian of Congress, who determines exemptions to the anti-hacking law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), decided last October that unlocking mobile phones would no longer be exempted, and gave a 90-day grace period ending Jan. 26.
In a prompt but lengthy reply to the petition, the White House spelled out its position, essentially that while the process that made unlocking illegal is there for a reason, the decision itself failed to reflect the realities and necessities of modern-day life. Here are some excerpts:
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. ... 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.
The law gives the Librarian the authority to establish or eliminate exceptions -- and we respect that process. But it is also worth noting the statement the Library of Congress released today on the broader public policy concerns of the issue. Clearly the White House and Library of Congress agree that the DMCA exception process is a rigid and imperfect fit for this telecommunications issue, and we want to ensure this particular challenge for mobile competition is solved.
The Obama Administration would support a range of approaches to addressing this issue, including narrow legislative fixes in the telecommunications space that make it clear: neither criminal law nor technological locks should prevent consumers from switching carriers when they are no longer bound by a service agreement or other obligation.
This response arrived alongside two others with additional viewpoints, one from the Library of Congress and one from the Federal Communications Commission.
The Library of Congress defended its position, saying that it was just executing the law faithfully and with respect to technical considerations brought up during the process. But officials agree that there's more to it than that, and point out that their work has often served as an acknowledged "barometer for broader policy concerns" and that it seems to have done so at this time as well.
From a communications policy perspective, this raises serious competition and innovation concerns, and for wireless consumers, it doesn't pass the common sense test. 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. I also encourage Congress to take a close look and consider a legislative solution.
While concerned consumers won't likely see the decision reversed or nullified with any rapidity, it's clear that the issue of mobile phone unlocking (and in a broader sense, consumer freedom in cases like it) is very much on the table for regulators and lawmakers.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.