FCC to look at overturning unlocking ban

The Federal Communications Commission has let it be known that it plans to investigate the recent ban on cellphone unlocking.

The decision was made last year, and came into force at the end of Jaunary, prompting outrage from users. A petition calling for the ban to be scrapped recently hit 100,000 signatures, meaning the government will be forced to reconsider it.

The ban means that customers of one carrier can’t switch to a different network, even after their contracts have expired. Doing so risks five years in jail and a half-million dollar fine. It’s been criticized not only by consumer associations but by many carriers themselves, on the groupnds that it’s bad for comeptition.

Now, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has told TechCrunch that he’s not entirely happy with the ban either. He said it “raises competitive concerns; it raises innovation concerns”. And, he added, “It’s something that we will look at at the FCC to see if we can and should enable consumers to use unlocked phones.”

Unfortunately, Genachowski isn’t certain that he actually has any authority over the issue. But with the Obama administration now forced to reconsider the ban in the light of the petition, there’s no doubt that Genachowski’s opinion will carry a lot of weight.

Part of the problem is that the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) wasn’t designed for this sort of situation. Its wording states: “No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title.”

The idea was, of course, to protect creative works – and it’s certainly arguable that using this provision to prevent unlocking is taking things a step too far. Even if a case ever did reach court, it might well decide that the DMCA doesn’t actually make it illegal to unlock a phone after all.