Cellphone unlocking petition hits 100,000 signatures

Posted by Emma Woollacott

The US government will have to reconsider its decision to ban cellphone unlocking, after an online petition reached the necessary 100,000 signatures.

The petition was prompted by a decision last year to ban the procedure under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which states: "No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title."

While cellphone unlocking was previously exempted from this rule, the exemption was scrapped last October. The new rules came into force at the end of last month, meaning that customers of one carrier can't switch to a different network, even after their contracts have 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 petition reads.

"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."

Earlier this year, the Obama legislation set a new threshold beyond which it would consider any petitions - 100,000 signatures, up massively from the previous level of 5,000. Despite this, the phone unlocking petition has reached the necessary number of signatures - currently 106,902 - forcing the White House to consider it and issue a response.

Of course, the ban on unlocking hasn't led to any court cases yet - and is in any case likely to hit businesses that unlock and resell phones rather than users. And, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it may not stand up in court in any case.

"Unlocking is in a legal grey area under the DMCA. The law was supposed to protect creative works, but it's often been misused by electronics makers to block competition and kill markets for used goods. The courts have pushed back, ruling that the DMCA doesn't protect digital locks that keep digital devices from talking to each other when creative work isn't involved," says EFF staff attorney Mitch Stoltz.

"And no creative work is involved here: Wireless carriers aren't worried about "piracy" of the software on their phones, they're worried about people reselling subsidized phones at a profit. So if the matter ever reached a court, it might well decide that the DMCA does not forbid unlocking a phone."