We've been waiting on this for a couple weeks now and the White House has finally come through with its response to the cell phone unlock petition. The short version, for the tl;dr crowd is simple: "The White House agrees." Citing not just smartphones but tablets as well, the Executive branch of the U.S. government states, in no uncertain terms, that there should be no reason that carriers should block a customer from switching carriers once contractual obligations are fulfilled.

The White House also pointed out that it kind of already supported this (sorta) by way of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is itself an agency of the Department of Commerce under the Executive branch. That agency sent a letter (PDF) to the Register of Copyrights when the debate was still ongoing expressing support for unlocking cell phones.

So, what happens now? Well, for starters, the administration said that the FCC "has an important role to play here." The statement didn't specifically mention what kind of role it might play, but did highlight that Chairman Genachowski has already voiced concerns over the issue (PDF). The NTIA will be joining forces with the agency to address the problem.

The statement does not mention any intention to propose new legislation or to revoke any privileges of the DMCA. The administration does admit that the current process is, to paraphrase, complete shite. A thought that, humorously enough, is shared by the Library of Congress. Both groups believe that the DMCA exemption process is no substitute for broad public policy. However, no new legislative plans were put forth today. The White House did promise to "work with Congress...to ensure our laws keep pace with changing technology", but that's about where it ends. Hopefully we'll hear more about this in the future.

The major concern about this statement, though, is the "service agreement" caveat. As stated, the White House supports phone unlocking "if you have paid for your mobile device, and aren't bound by a service agreement or other obligation." Well, while carrier policies are very difficult to navigate, in general you can request that your carrier unlock your phone under certain conditions. These usually include being out of contract. Additionally, the new DMCA exemption does allow older, legacy phones to be unlocked without approval.

There are a number of conditions that have to be considered here, but it's worth pointing out that, buried in an emphatically supportive statement, the administration has given the carriers some room to stand on. While under a contract, you may still be subject to whatever terms and conditions the company decides it wants you to be under. Given that a vast majority of smartphones are currently used on contract and with a subsidy, the range of impact this response can have may be severely limited.

We'll have to wait and see what the outcome of this is. It's unclear if the FCC has the authority to require carriers to provide unlocking services once a contractual obligation is fulfilled, or if carriers may be required to offer unlocked versions of all handsets if paid for in full (the latter being very unlikely). Also, this fails to deal with the much larger issue of network incompatibility, which is currently the biggest problem for interoperability within the US.

Still, the White house unilaterally supports the idea. Regardless of what authority it has to effect change or what can be done while maintaining the caveat of contract fulfillment, the President of the United States agrees with the statements put forth in the phone unlock petition. That's something.

Source: We The People