The Obama Administration on Monday said cell-phone unlocking should be legalized. R. David Edelman, White House senior adviser for Internet, Innovation and Piracy, responded to an online petition signed by more than 114,000 people in favor of a consumer right to unlock cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties.

The White House went one step further, with Edelman saying he believes the same principle should also apply to tablets.

Last year, the Librarian of Congress decided phone unlocking no longer should be exempt from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA. The DMCA deems it illegal to "circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access" to copyrighted material. With smartphones and tablets, this would apply to software embedded in the devices that control carrier access.

The Library of Congress decision took effect in January, effectively making unlocking illegal. The ruling motivated citizens to petition the White House in hopes of a reversal.

"If you have paid for your mobile Relevant Products/Services device, and aren't bound by a service agreement or other obligation, you should be able to use it on another network Relevant Products/Services," Edelman wrote in a blog post. "It's common sense, crucial for protecting consumer choice, and important for ensuring we continue to have the vibrant, competitive wireless market that delivers innovative products and solid service to meet consumers' needs."

Determined to Unlock

Edelman said the Obama Administration would support a range of approaches to addressing this issue, including narrow legislative fixes in the telecommunications space that make it clear: neither criminal law nor technological locks should prevent consumers from switching carriers when they are no longer bound by a service agreement or other obligation.

The Obama Administration also believes the Federal Communications Commission, with its responsibility for promoting mobile competition and innovation, has a role to play. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has voiced his concern about mobile phone unlocking, Edelman said. To complement Genachowski's efforts, the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration will be consulting with the FCC as it addresses this issue.

"We look forward to continuing to work with Congress, the wireless and mobile phone industries, and most importantly you -- the everyday consumers who stand to benefit from this greater flexibility -- to ensure our laws keep pace with changing technology, protect the economic competitiveness that has led to such innovation in this space, and offer consumers the flexibility and freedoms they deserve," Edleman said.

Both Sides of the Lock

Brad Shimmin, an analyst at Current Analysis, said that philosophically, the Obama Administration is absolutely right: cell phones should not be locked.

"Locking cell phones runs counter to the way society works and expects its providers to behave," Shimmin told us. "It's ridiculous for subscribers not to have any form of ownership over the device they are paying for.

"The caveat, of course, is that they aren't paying for it in its entirety. They are highly subsidized. Because of that, carriers believe it's beneficial to provide some controls over that device to make sure customers stay with their contracts and make sure they are able to provide the level of support that they feel they can only with a locked-down device."

Over the long haul, Shimmin said, locking cell phones is harmful to all concerned. The savvier users become, the less inclined they are to adhere to locks. When a smartphone is introduced it doesn't take long for software to roll out to unlock it. Locked cell phones, Shimmin said, also harm innovation. As he sees it, it's unacceptable to wait six months to get an updated operating system.

"I do hope that there is some movement on this in the carrier marketplace to open up phones, and if that leads to carriers offering fewer subsidized plans, so be it," Shimmin said. "There are subscribers who really don't pay that much attention to their device and simply want it to work, and therefore a heavily subsidized plan that locks down the phone is not a big deal for them. But the class of users who want to have the shiniest newest toys and want to modify those toys to make them the best they can be should be able to to pay a premium for that."