White House petition

Some good news today in the fight for making it legal to SIM-unlock your phone without having to go through an operator. The White House has swiftly responded to the petition that garnered the support of more than 114,000 people, with a pretty crystal clear subject line -- "It's time to legalize cell phone unlocking."

That's a pretty powerful step in the right direction, but it doesn't actually change anything yet. If you want to (legally) SIM unlock your phone, you still have to go through your operator to get it done. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. If your account is in good standing and you've paid off the subsidy on your phone, they should hand over the SIM unlock code with no problem.

There are cases, however, that make things a little more difficult, and that's where this legality issue comes into play.

R. David Edelman, senior advisor for Internet, Innovation & Privacy, authored the response, saying, in part:

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. 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.

This is particularly important for secondhand or other mobile devices that you might buy or receive as a gift, and want to activate on the wireless network that meets your needs -- even if it isn't the one on which the device was first activated. All consumers deserve that flexibility.

Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, issued his own statement today as well:

“The Copyright Office of the Library of Congress recently reversed its longstanding position and stated it
is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act for consumers to unlock new mobile phones, even
those outside of contract periods, without their wireless providers’ permission, and that consumers are
subject to criminal penalties if they do.

"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

We wouldn't go so far as to call this a win for consumers yet. Nothing's actually changed, and mobile operators aren't going to make any sort of change that could cost them money easy to come by. This does, however, remain about the principle of the matter as much as anything else. But that the White House responded as quickly as it did -- and, we believe, in the proper manner -- is a big step in the right direction.

Sources: White House; FCC (pdf)


Reader comments

White House, FCC chair agree SIM unlocking should be legal


Did it sound like we might be able to go from Verizon to Sprint and vice-versa to anyone else? It would be about darn time!

Doubt it. Releasing the phone still wouldn't put it in the list of aproved devices on the other's CDMA list. This is really more of a GSM issue. (Although, when everything is LTE and CDMA has been retired, that might be an option)

No it doesn't change the devices carriers will allow on their network. What it mean is that the government agrees that it should be legal to take your phone to another carrier (if the new carrier supports it) so long as your not on a contract.

With the existing law it would have allowed carriers to refuse to unlock your phone to take to another carrier. Essentially carriers would have been able to treat your phone (that you paid for) the same way they trated mobile numbers years ago, as their own property, regardless if you paid it off.

It's not enough.

If my phone is unlocked it doesn't stop me from paying my carrier. If I end the contract early, I'm hit by an ETF anyway. An ETF is equivalent to paying off the balance of the device. In fact, that's all an ETF should be: a pro-rated charge for the subsidized device. If you didn't get a new device then you owe next to nothing (maybe a month's worth of service like property renters do). The carrier will still get their precious monies either way.

Anyway, if I decide to visit London and want to use my GSM but SIM-locked device, I'm still screwed. The carrier can still decide to give me the finger in an effort to get me to buy one of their own international pre-paid plans (or some other equivalent).

No way. I'm still paying them, and that won't change. I should be able to switch SIMs at will on the same device for any reason. We're not getting away with some kind of scam where we start a plan with a subsidized device and run, because that's simply not possible.

People start plans with subsidized devices and run all the time. Why do you think ETF's for smartphones went up? Having a requirement for devices to be paid off/contact's fufilled is very reasonable. (Also, ending the contract and paying the ETF releases the phone, so that wouldn't be a double charge)

ETF solves the "run all the time" problem.
If they "run" without paying ETF, its a stolen phone.

Carriers have already agreed to kill phones that are stolen.

If you pay the ETF, or are regularly paying your bill they have no need for a carrier lock.

So all remaining reasons to carrier lock phones are obsolete.
The practice should simply be made illegal as it is in other countries.

When they start adding the ones who ditch the service without paying the ETF to the blacklist, that will work.

As for the regular payers, that's a great idea, but until the subsidy is paid off, the carrier still has a reason to keep the device tied to their network. (Though most will let it slide with an international plan.) Consider how if you make the fist year of payments on your car or house, the bank will still take them if you stop in year two. (Obviously worth more than a phone, but the same principle.)

Easiest solution is buy your device outright and never have that problem.

The FCC would not allow carriers to black list people for poor financial judgement. The spectrum carriers use is owned by the citizens of the U.S. and leased through the FCC on our behalf, and the are regulated by rules on what they can and can not do.

What I don't understand is how or why the library of congress has any say whatsoever in this decision

The FCC would not allow carriers to black list people for poor financial judgement. The spectrum carriers use is owned by the citizens of the U.S. and leased through the FCC on our behalf, and the are regulated by rules on what they can and can not do.

What I don't understand is how or why the library of congress has any say whatsoever in this decision

People should be able to unlock their effen phone without going to jail for five years and being sued for 500,000 USD. The United States government has their heads up their a$$es.

I'm fine if they made specific changes to say that phones can be unlocked if out of contract or ETF paid. Julius Genachowski's statement implies that even out of contract phones can't be unlocked legally with carrier permission.

Not good enough, in my opinion. I think the law should be amended such that the carriers "must" (not "can") unlock a phone once it has gone out of initial contract (or ETF paid) AND it should be automatic. Consumers shouldn't have to ASK for it.

It should be just like when you buy a car. The car's title has a lean on it until you pay it off... then you get a title lean release automatically from the lender.

Why not forbid carrier locking all together?

Other countries do that, it works just fine.

Carriers in this country have enough lock-ins due to differing frequency bands built into the phones anyway. They don't need this additional leverage.

End carrier subsidy locking when phones are sold at full-retail cost with no payment plans.

There's more than four carriers in the US.

hate to be debbie downer, but the statement by R. David Edelman basically says nothing new.

"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."

so basically, they feel the same way the library of congress does.

No it looks like you will be able to unlock the phone, but you will still need to pay off the contract. So which means that if you do decide to use another sim; for eg those sim cards that you can make overseas call for cheap.

Here is Australia, we have no problems at all unlocking a phone even only after a month of starting a new contract. They usually unlock it without any questions just for customer service sake. At least that's what our Vodafone does.

Wouldn't it be in the advantage of the carrier for folks to do this as it would recuse the carrier from having to keep the phones up to date? Could be a dumb question; I just don't know.

No, people buy the phones at discount with new/upgrade contracts, then sell them for a profit and skip on the bill. By keeping the phones locked to the carrier until the contract ends or ETF is paid, it helps prevent these kind of losses.

In my country we don't have locked devices over 10 years. Some people are buying with contract, but most of us prefer to buy devices for full price or use credit. 3 month ago I bought Nexus7 3G and HTC One S using 1-year 0% credit.

All devices are sim-free and I can use it in any GSM network.

Even if your not under contract and not subsidized there's no guarantee the carrier will unlock your phone. I asked T-Mobile straight up if I pay full retail price for an HTC One will they unlock it for me and the answer was "probably not since its a carrier branded, new device". I need to be able to use my phones with both TMo, AT&T and in Europe (I swap SIMs all the time depending on my location here and abroad) so right now I'm limited to Nexus phones, the new Sonys, or using phones like HTC's where TMo supports 1900 HSPA+ (fortunately growing all the time).