Obama's Stance on Unlocking Cell Phones Comes With a Very Big Catch

Brian Fung

Cell-phone users, rejoice: The White House has agreed that you should be able to unlock your phone and bring it with you to another carrier “without risking criminal or other penalties.”

The statement is a big deal, if only because it seems to align the White House with consumers against the Library of Congress. It was the LOC that allowed a legal shield to expire at the end of January for people who unlocked their phones themselves, exposing them to lawsuits from wireless carriers for circumventing copyright laws.

Here’s the money quote from Monday's White House response:

The statement goes on to make clear that the administration supports congressional action that would eliminate barriers to provider-jumping. But buried in the quote above and elsewhere in the response is an important caveat that risks getting overlooked in all of Monday’s excitement: The White House only supports unlocking when consumers have fulfilled their contractual obligations. It’s silent on whether it supports a consumer’s decision to unlock their phone in the middle of their contract.

This omission doesn’t help the petitioners, whose campaign is predicated on consumers being legally justified in unlocking a phone whenever they want — not just when they've reached the end of their contract. In fact, according to Amy Storey, a spokeswoman for the wireless industry, carriers are perfectly willing to sell you a phone on contract that comes unlocked. They’re also willing to let you unlock your phone without breaking your agreement. So while the statement expresses solidarity with the petitioners, it also echoes many of the points industry has been making. 

Of course, unlocking your cell phone under any circumstance is still currently a no-no, and getting the legal shield back in place remains the petitioners' most immediate priority. Derek Khanna, one of the leading petitioners, said he couldn't comment on the apparent alignment between the White House's stance and the wireless industry's until he'd had more time to look through the response. Nevertheless, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Obama administration is trying to walk a policy tightrope.