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White House: You have a right to unlock your cell phone

Obama administration says consumers should be able to unlock their cell phones, but that doesn't mean it's OK yet.

Josh Lowensohn/CNET

The White House today backed an Internet petition asking the Library of Congress to change its stance on the legality of smartphone unlocking.

In a post on the We The People blog, R. David Edelman, the White House senior adviser for Internet, innovation and privacy, said the administration agrees with those who signed the petition, and aims to support any legislation that would remedy the issue.

"The White House agrees with the 114,000 plus of you who believe that consumers should be able to unlock their cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties," Edelman wrote. "In fact, we believe the same principle should also apply to tablets, which are increasingly similar to smartphones."

Edelman added that the issue falls within the realm of the Federal Communications Commission, and to some degree mobile device manufacturers to make sure "customers can fully reap the benefits and features they expect when purchasing their devices."

"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," Edelman said.

Having an unlocked cell phone means you can change carriers freely, something that many device manufacturers lock down even after a contract's term is up. Consumers typically need to spend more to buy a device up front in order to buy it unlocked, or face what are usually higher fees with travel data packages or international roaming. The updated law, which went into effect in January, means that unauthorized unlocking -- that is, any unlocking that is done without the permission of your carrier -- is illegal.

Even with that recommendation from the administration, that doesn't mean it's now OK to unlock your smartphone. The Copyright Office is part of the Library of Congress, a legislative branch agency. To that end, Edelman notes that the Obama administration "would support a range of approaches to addressing this issue," including legislation.

In a statement, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski noted that the group was examining the issue and pushing for a legislative fix.

"From a communications policy perspective, this raises serious competition and innovation concerns, and for wireless consumers, it doesn't pass the common sense test," Genachowski said. "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 solution."

The original petition was launched in late January, and has since amassed 114,322 signatures. It needed 100,000 to demand a response from The White House, a threshold it reached late last month.

"This is a big victory for consumers, and I'm glad to have played a part in it," petition creator Sina Khanifar told CNET in an e-mail. "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.' The optimist in me is really glad to have proved them wrong."