On March 4, 2013, the White House officially responded to an online petition calling for the legalization of cell phone unlocking. The process of unlocking a cell phone usually refers to installing software that allows a cell phone to be used on multiple wireless carriers. Cell phone unlocking had previously been legal under an exemption granted by the Copyright Office pursuant to its DMCA 1201 Rulemaking powers; however, in 2012 the Copyright Office declined to renew the exemption.
Following the end of the exemption, several consumers protested the end of legal cell phone unlocking. A petition to the president was created, and crossed the recently raised 100,000-signature threshold, guaranteeing a response from the Administration. The White House responded to the petition astonishingly fast—within a weekend—by voicing strong support for cell phone unlocking. One of the suggestions put forth by the White House was that the Federal Communications Commission should investigate whether it is within their power to address the legalization of cell phone unlocking. Notably, this suggestion has been well received by the FCC, as Chairman Genachowski has expressed enthusiasm for the FCC investigating the issue. The question remains, however, whether there are steps the FCC can actually take that fall within their agency powers to address the issue. This post explores that question.