Unlocking Ban Investigated By FCC: Will It Overturn The Law?

By Jordan Mammo , Mar 03, 2013 10:56 AM EST

The decision to make unlocking mobile phones illegal has sparked some serious backlash among Internet activists and those who perform the action, but opponents of the ruling might have some hope.

The Federal Communications Commission announced that it will investigate the unlocking ban in order to measure its impact on economic competitiveness. If the FCC finds it does, and that it has the power to overturn the ruling, it could mark another big win for Internet activism.

The "ban raises competition concerns; it raises innovation concerns," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said to TechCrunch at one of the web site's San Francisco events.

Asked about overturning the law, Genachowski seemed to suggest it's a distinct possibility.

"It's something that we will look at at the FCC to see if we can and should enable consumers to use unlocked phones," Genachowski said.

Before 2013, it was perfectly legal for smartphone owners to unlock their devices, allowing them to switch to different phone carriers if they chose to do so.

In January, the Library of Congress issued a ruling stating that it would now be illegal to unlock a cell phone, even after their contract had expired. Individuals who were caught doing so would face up to five years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

As soon as the ruling was issued, thousands of people signed an online petition aimed at forcing the Obama administration to explain the decision and potentially overturn it. It quickly reached more than 100,000 signatures, clearing the threshold needed to ensure a response from the White House.

"This prohibition is a violation of our property rights, and it makes you wonder, if you can't alter the settings on your phone, do you even own your own phone?" wrote Derek Khanna over at Forbes.

The Library of Congress claimed the ruling was consistent with the terms laid out in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed by Congress in 1998, but many claim the law has widely reported problems and can stifle property rights as well as innovation.

The unlocking petition is the first petition to gain enough votes to force an official response from the White House since it upped the number of signatures needed. Previously, only 25,000 signatures were required (hence the Death Star response), but the administration raised the limit as it seemed increasingly likely they'd have to continue responding to silly petitions (like granting each state an official Pokemon).

At this point, then, unlocking supporters are waiting for two things: a White House response and an FCC investigation. The Internet was critical in defeating proposals like SOPA, which threatened online freedom; let's see if it can make unlocking legal again.

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