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Petition to decriminalize smartphone unlocking gains steam

A new rule from the Library of Congress makes it illegal to unlock a new smartphone without permission from carriers. Now thousands of users are asking the Obama administration for a reversal.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Contributing editor Eric Mack covers space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Eric Mack
2 min read
No, not quite the same thing. Amanda Kooser/CNET

This past weekend, the Library of Congress officially put down the hammer on the practice of unlocking smartphones without a carrier's permission, but now the people are standing up for their right to violate their wireless contracts.

In case you missed it, a new rule handed down by the Librarian of Congress (the office in charge of setting the rules to execute the recently updated Digital Millenium Copyright Act) went into effect on Saturday. It makes it illegal to unlock a a smartphone purchased after January 26 without permission from the carrier that locked it.

Naturally, plenty of folks on the Internet are none too happy with the government telling them what they can do with their devices. A petition on the White House "We the People" site asks "the Librarian of Congress to rescind this decision, and failing that, (the administration should) champion a bill that makes unlocking permanently legal."

The rule doesn't apply to phones purchased unlocked, those purchased before January 26, or used handsets. But it also seems that even after a carrier contract runs out, you'll need to get permission from your carrier to unlock that old phone if you want to be fully legit.

As of this writing, more than 28,000 people have signed the digital petition. A total of 100,000 signatures are needed by February 23 to compel the Obama administration to respond to the petition. Theoretically, the White House does have the power and resources to do what the petition asks, unlike a number of other petitions on the site, like this hilariously denied call for the building of a real-life Death Star. However, to do so, the president would have to go against the wishes of the wireless industry, Congress, and members of his own executive branch to defend the right of people to violate their wireless contracts.

There is actually a decent case to be made that there's absolutely no need for a law that simply reiterates an existing contract, but I'll be surprised if the president goes against the tide in Washington on this one, unless there's an even larger and opposing tide of public sentiment pulling him the other way.

So far, few people seem that scared that Johnny Law will come after them for unlocking their locked devices. In our own informal poll, more than 59 percent of respondents say they still plan to take their chances and unlock.