White House Supports Cell Phone Unlocking, Big Victory For Tech Activism

Today was a big day for grassroots consumer activism: The White House officially came out in support of cell phone unlocking. After over 100,000 netizens demanded a response from the Obama Administration related to a new law banning consumers from “unlocking” their cell phones in order to move between carriers, the White House declared its unequivocal support for consumer choice.

“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,” wrote White House Senior Advisor R. David Edelman on the White House Blog. “In fact, we believe the same principle should also apply to tablets, which are increasingly similar to smart phones. And if you have paid for your mobile device, and aren’t bound by a service agreement or other obligation, you should be able to use it on another network. 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.”

Specifically, the administration supports “narrow legislative fixes” to allow consumers to move between carriers without legal penalties. It also gave a nod to the role of the Federal Communications Commission, which announced at a TechCrunch CrunchGov event last week, that it would investigate whether it has any executive authority to overturn the law.

Until earlier this year, consumers were able to “unlock” their smartphones, which allowed them to switch carriers (AT&T, Verizon, etc). 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 long-held decision was reversed during the last round of triennial reviews.

The Library of Congress is not backing down, however, in what appears to be the beginning of a fight within the federal government. “The rulemaking is a technical, legal proceeding and involves a lengthy public process,” read an official response from the Library Of Congress, which implied that there were no immediate plans to reverse its decision [PDF].

The White House response is especially notable, since it is surely driven by an official petitioning process, WeThePeople. In the past, the official petitioning site had been slammed by critics for not actually taking the demands of the petitioners seriously. Indeed, it had to officially respond to these angry critics on the blog and explain their rule-making process.

This latest response shows that the petitioning site does, in fact, allow ordinary citizens to influence their government and speaks volumes about the future of online activism.

“This is a big victory for consumers, and I’m glad to have played a part in it. A lot of people reacted skeptically when I originally started the petition, with lots of comments to the effect of ‘petitions don’t do anything,'” wrote Sina Khanifar, who started the petition. “The optimist in me is really glad to have proved them wrong. The White House just showed that they really do listen, and that they’re willing to take action.”