The Federal Communications Commission has said that it will investigate the legal issues surrounding the unlocking of cell phones. The regulator released a statement earlier today citing the widespread protest of the move, as evidenced by an online petition, as part of the impetus for their new action.


In January this year a law was passed that made the practice of cell phone unlocking illegal for users on a hardware subsidizing contract. Cell phone unlocking is the removal of restrictions placed on the device by a cell phone carrier. It is opposed to jailbreaking, which is the removal of restrictions placed on devices by manufacturers. The ruling caused widespread dismay, and led to a protest movement.

The FCC said it will investigate the law, in order to ascertain whether or not it negatively affects competitiveness. The story was originally reported by TechCrunch. According to that site, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the “ban raises competition concerns; it raises innovation concerns.”

The ban on unlocking smartphones means it is illegal for users to switch their cell phone carrier on a subsidized phone. The law appears designed to protect cell carriers who pay out of pocket for hardware in the hope that they will reap a profit on monthly contracts. The ban was implemented under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA.

For six years the Library of Congress, which is charged with specifying the regulations of the DMCA, did not include cell phone unlocking under the act. That all changed in January, however. The FCC will now investigate that ruling and see if there’s anything that it can do to change it.

The FCC chairman said “It’s something that we will look at at [sic] the FCC to see if we can and should enable consumers to use unlocked phones.” According to Gregory Ferenstein, who originally reported the story at TechCrunch, Genachowski’s tone made him out to appear anxious to do something about the law.

It is unclear whether or not the FCC has any authority on the issue of cell phone unlocking, and the first thing the regulator is likely to do is make the case for the legitimacy of this action. If it manages to make that case convincingly, users might once gain be allowed to unlock their phones without fearing retribution from the authorities.