White House pushes to "unlock and unblock" cell phones

By NBC News

March 5, 2013 Updated Mar 5, 2013 at 10:56 PM CDT

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- An online petition protesting a ban on cell phone unlocking has the White House talking.

The Obama administration says consumers should be able to move their phones and tablets from one carrier to another after fulfilling their contracts.

The fight centers around a piece of copyright law.

The wireless industry says the unlocking ban protects their software, but consumers argue it violates their rights.

Last fall the Library of Congress decided consumers could no longer unlock their devices, in other words take the phone to a different carrier, without first getting that service provider's permission.

People caught violating the law face fines and prison time.

Derek Khanna helped organize support for a petition on the White House website protesting the unlocking ban.

"If you own the phone you shouldn't have to ask anyone for permission to do what you want with your own device," he argues.

The petition garnered more than 114,000 signatures and support from the White House.

The Obama administration called allowing consumers to unlock their devices after fulfilling a contract "common sense" and "crucial for protecting consumer choice".

Wireless industry advocate Jot Carpenter says providers don't oppose cell phone unlocking after a contract.

He adds consumers who don't want to wait can simply buy an unlocked phone at a higher price.

"The carrier having put money up front to subsidize the device has a reasonable expectation the consumer will be around to fulfill the terms of the contract," he says.

Carpenter says Verizon, AT&T and Sprint all allow consumers to unlock their phones eventually.

"Yes, they say that. That was contradicted by testimony and evidence," Khanna argues.

The White House is demanding a prompt evaluation of the issue.

The Federal Communications Commission will also look at changes to the policy.

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