Feds: Consumers should be allowed to 'unlock' cellphones

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WASHINGTON — The White House on Monday said consumers should be allowed to “unlock” their phones and tablets and switch wireless networks after their contracts run out without fear of breaking the law.

Most mobile gadgets contain software that prevents a smartphone user on, say, AT&T’s network from switching the device to run on a rival system. The blocks can be easily removed with programs that can be downloaded from the Web.

But in January, the Library of Congress made unlocking a violation of a little-known provision of copyright law. Anyone who tried to do so could face criminal and civil penalties.

The decision quickly sparked an outcry by online activists. Taking to social media, blogs and the White House’s own protest forum, they collected over 114,000 signatures in just a few weeks.

In response, the Obama administration said it would support legislation to overturn the decision by the Library of Congress, which houses the U.S. Copyright Office. The White House also called on the Federal Communications Commission to intervene.

“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,” David Edelman, Obama’s senior Internet adviser, wrote in a blog.On Monday, the Library of Congress said it would review its policies. In a statement, it said: “The question of locked cellphones has implications for telecommunications policy and that it would benefit from review and resolution in that context.”

The Federal Communications Commission also said Monday it supports cellphone unlocking.

Chairman Julius Genachowski said the FCC is exploring if “the agency, wireless providers, or others should take action to preserve consumers’ ability to unlock their mobile phones.”

Washington Post reporter Cecilia Kang is a 1994 Whitman College graduate.

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