A White House petition to reverse a law that prohibits the unlocking of cellphones has now accumulated more than 100,000 signatures—a response rate that should compel the White House to formally respond.
Sina Khanifar, an entrepreneur, programmer and founder of wireless network research firm OpenSignal, started the petition last month with the goal of reversing a decision by the Librarian of Congress that the unlocking of cell phones would be removed from the exceptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). It is currently illegal to unlock a cellphone purchased after Jan. 26. The offense is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
According to Khanifar, the issue has exploded on the internet and engaged millions of Americans on both sides of the political aisle.
Khanifar said in an interview that the problem is that the DMCA is too broadly written. By unlocking a cellphone, he said, a user is not copying any software—one of the things the DMCA is designed to prevent.
“Very simply, you are modifying something that you bought to use it in a different way, which should be allowed,” Khanifar said.
Carriers and handset OEMs don’t want people unlocking their cellphones for several reasons. Unlocking the phone makes it easier to switch networks, which carriers don’t want, Khanifar said. Unlocking the phone also prevents carriers from charging what he characterized as exorbitant fees for roaming while in Europe. Preventing users from unlocking phones also means that handset OEMs sell more handsets, Khanifar said.
Unlocking phones allows you to swap SIM cards in your phone to a different carrier and is commonly used by thousands of our service-members deploying abroad, according to Khanifar. Until recently, T-Mobile actually encouraged potential customers to unlock their phones and sign up with them, he said.
“This ruling will dry up an entire unlocking software industry and will create higher barriers to protect particular dominant industries rather than promote more competition,” said Khanifar.
Now that the petition has been signed by more than 100,000 people, Khanifar believes that the White House will be compelled to formally respond, which he hopes will get the ball rolling toward getting the exception re-instated. He and other advocates, including Derek Khanna, a former Republican staffer who wrote a controversial memo on copyright reform, are also planning to push the issue in others ways, including encouraging like-minded individuals to write letters to members of Congress.
The petition can be viewed and signed here.