White House Supports Cell Phone Jailbreak

Mar 11, 2013

The Obama administration wants users to be free to unlock their phones without risk of prosecution.

In October of last year, the US Librarian of Congress rescinded an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that allowed consumers to circumvent the security of their own mobile phones for purposes of switching service providers or altering the onboard software. This subtle bureaucratic procedure, which happened without much debate and without a vote from any elected body, made it impossible for mobile phone users to jailbreak their own phones without facing possible criminal penalties.
As expected, an outcry ensued among the FOSS and open platform communities, leading to a online petition filed the White House "We the People" initiative that garnered 114,000 signatures.
In an official response to the petition, the Obama administration has take a strong position against prohibiting user from unlocking their phones. According to R. David Edelman (writing for the administration), "...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....This is particularly important for secondhand or other mobile devices that you might buy or receive as a gift, and you want to activate on the wireless network that meets you needs..."
The response references a more detailed document by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which challenges the argument made by mobile industry lobbyists that software interoperability compromises security and increases piracy. According to the NTIA,  "...these assertions strike a similar chord to those raised in the 2010 proceeding, when Apple was concerned with its reputation and further believed that jailbreaking would 'breach the integrity of the iPhone's ecosystem.' A few years later, the record now shows that the iPhone has enjoyed tremendous popularity and continues to be one of the most popular mobile devices among users today. Second, the exemption also has not prevented other manufacturers from introducing new devices fostering innovation and competition. Consumers in today's mobile market enjoy a vast array of choices both as to devices and services. Therefore, at this juncture, the detrimental effects the opponents allege are speculative in nature."
It is easy to understand why mobile service providers and vendors would favor keeping consumers locked in to the original platform. The fact that the administration is willing to stand up to the lobby can only indicate one of the following:

  • they truly believe it is the will of the people
  • they truly believe it is the right thing to do

But before you bust the back off your phone, better pause for an obscure US Civics lesson. Unlike almost all government offices, the Library of Congress, which has the authority to reinstate the exemption for mobile phone jailbreaking, does not answer to the president but is an independent agency theoretically under the control of the legislative branch. Thus, the president cannot directly order the Librarian of Congress to re-establish the exemption. The best we can hope is that the petition and the ensuing conversation will shed some light on this problem and force Congress to stand accountable for denying users' access to their own property.

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