Tech Industry

White House petition to unlock cell phones hits 100,000 trigger

President Obama can't overturn the Library of Congress' decision, but he can -- if he chooses -- call for a new law restoring Americans' right to unlock mobile devices they legally purchased.

White House

A petition asking President Obama to oppose a new rule restricting cell phone owners from unlocking their devices has passed the 100,000 mark, meaning the White House is now obliged to respond.

The petition, which passed the threshold last night and now stands at more than 102,000 signatures, protests a regulation from the Library of Congress that prohibits unlocking phones without the carrier's permission -- even when a customer's contract with the carrier has expired.

"I think it's terrific," said Derek Khanna, a Yale visiting fellow who was previously a Republican Hill staffer working on copyright reform. "I think it demonstrates that the American people care about free markets. They care about property rights. They don't appreciate laws that represent crony capitalism."

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

Being prohibited from unlocking a phone that you purchased may seem bizarre, but the wireless carriers' lobbying arm, CTIA, asked for the new rule and has been defending it ever since it took effect on January 26. It "makes our streets just a little bit safer by making it harder for large-scale phone trafficking operations to operate in the open and buy large quantities of phones, unlock them, and resell them in foreign markets," CTIA general counsel Michael Altschul wrote in a blog post.

The petition is partly symbolic: The Library of Congress and the U.S. Copyright Office are part of the legislative branch, not the executive branch, meaning that Obama cannot overturn the decision even if he disagreed with it.

But Congress has the power to rewrite the law, the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which hands the Library of Congress the effective power to regulate certain gadgets in the name of copyright law. And a nudge from the administration would speed up any DMCA legislative fixes.

Under the DMCA, Americans are broadly prohibited from "circumventing" copyright-related technologies, with criminal penalties targeting people who profit from doing it. But the DMCA gives the Library of Congress the authority to grant exemptions, which it did for cell phone unlocking utilities in 2006 and 2010.

Last fall, however, the Library of Congress reversed position after lobbying from CTIA, which represents carriers including AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, and Sprint Nextel. It ruled (PDF) the exemption was no longer necessary because there are no "adverse effects" relating to locked phones, and unlocked phones are now readily available.

The Library of Congress' regulatory flip-flop doesn't affect jail breaking or rooting mobile phones, which is currently permitted through at least 2015.