WASHINGTON—Americans should be able to take their used cellphones and tablets freely from one wireless carrier to another if they aren't under contract, the White House said Monday, offering the latest victory to Internet activists seeking to shape U.S. technology policy.
Wireless companies have long sold cellphones at discounted prices in exchange for long-term service agreements. The catch: Consumers can't easily take what would otherwise be an expensive smartphone to a rival carrier who offers a better price while the phone is under contract.
Tech-savvy users have used computer programs as a workaround to unlock their phones. But last fall, the Library of Congress, which has oversight of certain copyright matters, banned the practice if a carrier doesn't give permission, saying cellphones should no longer be exempted from a section of copyright law. The move went into effect in January, prompting a backlash from activists who flooded a petition on the White House's website.
By the time the White House responded Monday, the "Make Unlocking Cell Phones Legal" petition had garnered more than 114,300 digital signatures.
"Consumers should be able to unlock their cellphones without risking criminal or other penalties," R. David Edelman, an Obama administration adviser on Internet and privacy issues, said in the official response to the petition.
The White House said consumers should still be required to honor service agreements.
Both AT&T Inc. and Sprint Nextel Corp. already allow customers to unlock their phones after they have fulfilled their contracts, but activists call the procedure cumbersome and say users should be able to do it on their own. The latest phones from Verizon Wireless, a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group PLC, come unlocked, a spokeswoman said.
The wireless industry defended their current practices.
"Customers have numerous options when purchasing mobile devices," Michael Altschul, general counsel for the wireless industry group CTIA, said in a statement Monday. "They may choose to purchase devices at full price with no lock, or at a substantially discounted price—typically hundreds of dollars less than the full price—by signing a contract with a carrier."
The Library of Congress's rules establish federal copyright penalties for unlocking a cellphone. Wireless carriers can collect statutory civil damages of between $200 and $2,500 per violation and criminal penalties can rise to $500,000, five years in prison or both for the first offense.
The response by the White House marks the latest effort by Washington to cater to Web activists, who have used a mix of online organizing, email blasts and occasional in-person protests to shape how Washington regulates new technology.
Internet message-board regulars and corporate titans such as Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg effectively killed antipiracy bills in Congress last year that had seemed likely to become law. Many lawmakers said the heated and organized response caught them off guard.
"People are just waking up to the impact they can really have," said Derek Khanna, a former technology staffer on Capitol Hill, who helped marshal support for the cellphone petition.
A former staffer for the Republican Study Committee, a leading group of House conservatives, Mr. Khanna wrote a memo last year that called for the liberalization of copyright law. The RSC retracted the report and said it didn't support it.
The RSC couldn't be reached for comment Monday.
Mr. Khanna said he received a phone call Monday from the White House's Mr. Edelman informing him of the administration's response shortly before the statement was posted online.
The White House confirmed the phone call but wouldn't comment on the discussion.
The Library of Congress defended its rule-making process in a statement Monday, but it said that the issue was worthy of further review in the context of telecommunications policy.
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