Sign The White House Petition To Make Cellphone Unlocking Legal Again

Tinkerers, open source ideologues, mobile developers and enthusiasts and even plain old mobile consumers who want a bit of choice, you got some bad news earlier this year: It is now illegal to unlock your smartphone. 

Through a decree from the Library Of Congress through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, as of Jan. 26, 2013, the exception explicitly allowing consumers to unlock any new smartphones they purchase has been ended.

Unlocking smartphones is a way for consumers to change the SIM cards in their devices so they can use it on a different carrier. For instance, if you unlocked your Samsung Galaxy S 3 you could then change carriers from AT&T to T-Mobile by replacing the SIM card.

What Is The Unlocking Petition All About?

A petition has been presented to the White House on its “We the People” website, which allows U.S. residents to entreat the U.S. government to address particular concerns. The White House is committed to respond to any petition that gets 100,000 signatures.

Here is the text of the petition:

The Librarian of Congress decided in October 2012 that unlocking of cell phones would be removed from the exceptions to the DMCA.

As of January 26, consumers will no longer be able unlock their phones for use on a different network without carrier permission, even after their contract has expired.

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 Librarian noted that carriers are offering more unlocked phones at present, but the great majority of phones sold are still locked.

We ask that the White House ask the Librarian of Congress to rescind this decision, and failing that, champion a bill that makes unlocking permanently legal.

The petition is now nearly a month old, having been started on Jan. 24 this year. It has until Feb. 23 to garner 100,000 signatures. As of the afternoon of Feb. 20, the petition was still about 12,000 votes short of obliging the White House to respond. 

Why Is Unlocking Important?

Consumers can face financial hurdles and loss of choice if the unlocking ban remains in effect. The most obvious problem is for overseas travelers who want to unlock their phones so they can use a local SIM card and avoid the exorbitant voice and data charges that domestic carriers like AT&T charge for foreign use. Consumers may also want to unlock their phones to switch carriers or if they want to sell their phones to independent third parties. 

The carriers and manufacturers, meanwhile, stand to benefit from the unlocking ban. If consumers are forced into contracts when they buy their phones, they cannot easily switch carriers without hefty early termination fees. Manufacturers benefit because if somebody wants to join a new carrier, they have to buy a new phone. Wireless trade groups like the CTIA look out for the interests of manufacturers and carriers (especially the carriers) and have endorsed the unlocking ban.

Who's Behind The Unlocking Petition?

One of the petition’s organizers is Sina Khanifar. He started a website while at college in 2004 called Cell-Unlock.com that sold software that unlocked consumers’ cellphones. Shortly thereafter he was hit by a cease-and-desist letter from Motorola alleging that he was circumventing DMCA rules that prohibit unlocking phone.. With the help of the founder of Stanford's Cyberlaw Clinic, Jennifer Granick, an exemption was created in the DMCA that specifically allowed consumers to unlock their phones. That exemption expired on Jan. 26.

Khanifar does have some incentive to make cellphone unlocking legal. The Cell-Unlock website is still active and is being run by his brother, Sohail. 

The other organizer of the petition is Derek Khanna, a former staff member of the Republican Study Committee who was infamously terminated from the group after releasing a memo on copyright and intellectual property legislation that was not well received by the Grand Old Party. Before his termination, Khanna was regarded as a tech-savvy young member of the Republican party. He is now a visiting law fellow at Yale University.

Want to end the unlocking ban? Sign the petition by Friday to ensure the White House responds.