Petition on Unlocking Smartphones Will Be Addressed by White House

A petition asking the White House to reverse a ruling on unlocking devices has surpassed the 100,000 votes needed to garner an official response.

A petition asking the White House to help change the fact that it's now illegal to unlock a mobile phone, even one no longer under contract with a wireless carrier, has exceeded 100,000 signatures—the minimum required for the White House to acknowledge it.

On Jan. 26, it became illegal to unlock a locked device, after an Oct. 26 2012 ruling by the Librarian of Congress went into effect. The ruling was based on the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which states, "No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title."

A locked device can only be used on the wireless network of the carrier that sold it.

The petition, which was formed two days before the ruling became law, argued: "Consumers will be forced to pay exorbitant roaming fees to make calls while traveling abroad. It reduces consumer choice, and decreases the resale value of devices that consumers have paid for in full."

The petition adds that while the Librarian, in his ruling, states that phones are increasingly being offered unlocked, the "great majority" are still sold locked to the carrier that subsidized it.
"We ask that the White House ask the Librarian of Congress to rescind this decision," the petition concluded, "and failing that, champion a bill that makes unlocking permanently legal."

According to Thompson Reuters, the petition was initiated by Sina Khanifar, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur "who was threated with legal action by Motorola for launching and [unlocking a] tool in 2004."

The petition needed to reach 100,000 signatures by Feb. 23. As of Feb. 22, it had 107, 945 signatures.

Despite the ruling, it's not impossible to legally unlock a phone. AT&T will give customers whose contracts have expired a code to unlock their phones legally; those customers just have to call and ask.

T-Mobile has a policy of unlocking phones, also upon request, after 90 days of service. The policies of Verizon Wireless and Sprint are hazier.

According to Sherwin Siy, vice president of legal affairs at consumer watchdog group Public Knowledge, fines for illegally unlocking a phone can range from a fine of $2,500 to potentially being prosecuted for up to $500,000 and imprisoned for five years. For, yes, wanting to use a phone you paid for and own on a different carrier's network.

"Suffice to say, it's a little ridiculous to think that copyright laws are intended to prevent people from switching between different phone providers easily," Siy blogged the day before the ruling went into effect. "Instead of being used to reward authors and creators ... it's being used to lock customers in to their existing providers, hurting their ability to vote with their feet and switch to a competitor."

Once the appropriate White House policy officials review the petition, explains the petition Website, someone will issue an official response, which will be posted to the petition page and emailed to everyone who signed the petition.

The site also quotes the First Amendment of the Constitution, which states that Congress can't prohibit the right for people to peaceably assemble or "to petition the government for a redress of grievances."