In a glaring example of how Congress often serves narrow special interests instead of the public interest, it has made it a federal crime to "unlock" newly purchased mobile phones without the permission of the service provider.

The provision makes it impossible for consumers to shop for data plans, regardless of whether they have a current service contract with a provider. They are, in effect, chained to the provider with which they had the original contract.

In effect, the rule means that customers who want to change providers after their contracts expire only can do so by buying a new phone.

The rule also inhibits a vast potential market for used phones. A purchaser is stuck with whatever service came with the phone when it was purchased, because it can't be unlocked without the service provider's permission. That denies the buyer the fundamental ownership right to use the device as he chooses.

According to the industry, consumers have abundant choice when initially buying a phone. The lock law is necessary, it claims, because the providers typically subsidize the cost of the phone in exchange for the service agreement.

The lock, however, should last no longer than the agreement.

Penalties for unlocking a phone without a carrier's permission are severe, up to five years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

The 2006 law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, includes a provision that allows the Library of Congress to declare three-year exemptions to the unlocking ban. It did so twice, but the second three-year exemption expired Jan. 26.

After an online White House petition calling for an end to the unlocking ban drew more than 100,000 signatures, the administration backed a reversal of the ban.

"Neither criminal law nor technological locks should prevent consumers from switching carriers when they are no longer bound by a service agreement," said R. David Edelman, White House senior adviser for Internet, innovation and privacy. Just so. Congress should amend the law.