White House Phone Unlocking Petition: Obama Needs to Consider It


Less than a month after it became illegal to unlock your mobile handset without permission from your carrier, the issue has, once again, reared its head.

In response to the controversial changes to existing law, a petition on the White House’s "We the People" petitions page has passed the 100,000 signature threshold, the benchmark for guaranteed consideration by the Obama administration.

Unlocking a phone frees it from restrictions that keep the device from working on more than one carrier's network, allowing it run on other networks that use the same wireless standard. This can be useful to international travelers who need their phones to work on different networks. Other people just like the freedom of being able to switch carriers as they please.

The exemptions to the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act took effect on January 26th, after a 90-day grace period. The changes do not prohibit unlocking, though they do require the consumer to gain permission from the carrier, regardless of the carrier’s reticence to provide the service. In terms of rationale, the Federal Register suggested that the changes were acceptable due to a "wide range" of unlocking options provided by carriers, apparently enough to warrant the prohibition of unlocking by consumers themselves.

The new ruling is certainly not in the spirit of the original law. As Mitch Stoltz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was intended to "protect creative works," not to stifle second-hand trading. The changes serve to impact consumer choice, rather than serve as an active benefit, and serve as a reminder of the growing backlash by tech companies on the sale of previously-owned products.

In addition to this, the options for those travelling abroad are decreased, other than the payment of excessive roaming fees.

The author of the White House petition, Sina Khanifar, who expressed his own doubts about the potential effectiveness of his petition in reversing the ruling. His petition calls on the White House to put pressure on the Library of Congress to go back on their decision, or to "champion a bill" that would make the unlocking of a phone legal.

If we analyze the responses to petitions to the White House, we can see that his sceptical tone is warranted. White House officials themselves called the petition tool a way for people to "organize around an issue of common interest," though pointed to issues in which petitions have "spurred action by the administration." This suggests that, at best, petitions can be seen as being a way for members of the public to articulate their voice.

As PolicyMic’s own Tom Mckay has suggested, the petitions service can be seen as "a public relations tool, not an actual attempt at engagement." It is likely, given the limited effectiveness of the petitions system, that this unpopular decision will remain in place. The ever-expanding scope of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, however, is certainly an issue that merits wider consideration by the administration.