FCC To Investigate Cell Phone Unlocking Ban

Following an online uproar over a law banning the unlocking of cell phones, the Federal Communications Commission will investigate whether the ban is harmful to economic competitiveness and if the executive branch has any authority to change the law.

The “ban raises competition concerns; it raises innovation concerns,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told me last night at a TechCrunch CrunchGov event at our San Francisco headquarters.

Until earlier this year, consumers were free to “unlock” their smartphones, which permitted them to switch carriers. For six years, the Library of Congress exempted cell phone unlocks from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which bans “circumvention” of copy protection schemes. The decision was reversed during the last round of triennial reviews.

Now users who dare to modify software on the devices they own are subject to legal penalties.

Genachowski isn’t sure what authority he has, but if he finds any, given the tone of the conversation, it’s likely he will exert his influence to reverse the decision. “It’s something that we will look at at the FCC to see if we can and should enable consumers to use unlocked phones.”

If the FCC does discover some latent authority to give users more freedom over their choice in carriers, it will mean another big victory for grassroots Internet activism. After the ban went into effect, netizens quickly rushed to demand an answer from the White House, sending over 100,000 signatures on the WeThePeople petition platform, which mandates that the Obama administration offer an official explanation.

In a previous WeThePeople petition related to open information, the White House unexpectedly pledged $100M to promote freely accessible federally funded research, which would otherwise be guarded behind expensive private academic journals.

The cell phone petition squarely pits users vs. the telecommunications lobby, who enjoy the lucrative contracts that tether smartphone users to their carriers. Depending on the FCC’s and White House’s looming response, this new form of digital activism may very well demonstrate the power of civic consumers.