Petition to White House to allow phone unlocking nabs 100,000 signatures

An online petition to legally protect the unlocking of mobile phones has collected 100,000 signatures—which is enough to guarantee a response from the White House.

The petition, created on January 24, notes that the unlocking of cell phones is no longer exempt from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. That means customers in the United States will need to get permission from wireless carriers if they want to unlock their phones, or else they'll risk getting sued.

“Consumers will be forced to pay exorbitant roaming fees to make calls while traveling abroad,” the petition reads. “It reduces consumer choice and decreases the resale value of devices that consumers have paid for in full.”

The petition calls for the White House to ask the Librarian of Congress to rescind his decision, or champion a bill that would permanently legalize unlocking.

(Jailbreaking smartphones for the purpose of installing new software is still exempt, though doing the same for tablets and game consoles is not.)

To be clear, the Librarian didn't exactly declare unlocking to be illegal. As Engadget pointed out last month, the ruling simply removed legal protection that consumers could have used in court if necessary. Courts would still have to decide whether unlocking a phone is illegal, but now that the shield for consumers is gone, lawsuits seem a bit more likely.

Many ways to unlock a smartphone

Keep in mind also that there are many legal avenues for unlocking a smartphone. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon all allow customers to unlock most handsets as long as their accounts are in good standing and have been active for a certain period of time (usually a month or two). Verizon's iPhone 5 is unlocked out of the box.

The one notable exception to easy unlocking is the iPhone on AT&T. The carrier will only unlock an iPhone if the customer isn't on contract. That usually means waiting two years after buying the phone, or paying the full, unsubsidized price. Even in that case, the petition's claim about decreased resale value doesn't hold much water, since users would have to be finished with their contracts to sell their old phones anyway.

Still, for who users who just purchased new phones, and are willing to unlock them through unofficial means for overseas travel, the lack of DMCA exemption could be a problem. It can also be an issue for users who want to buy a new phone at full price from one carrier, and then immediately bring that phone to a cheaper prepaid carrier on the same type of network.

It'll be interesting to see the White House response, but note that the Library of Congress only revisits DMCA exemptions once every three years. Between that, and getting Congress to draft, vote on, and pass a bill, it'll be a close race.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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