White House Petition On Legalizing Unlocking Of Mobile Phones Tries To Pass 100,000 Signature Threshold

from the getting-closer... dept

Last month, we wrote about how the White House had bumped up the number of signatures it requires to get on “We the People…” petitions from 25,000 to 100,000 before it is “required” to respond (though, its response rate on qualifying petitions has been dismal). Around the same time, we also talked about how unlocking your mobile phone, so it could be used on other carriers, was switching from being legal to being illegal, thanks to the Librarian of Congress choosing not to renew an exemption to the DMCA’s anti-circumvention rules for unlocking mobile phones.

While the reasoning for not renewing the exemption was that many carriers now allow unlocking anyway, that’s not true across the board, and there are plenty of limitations. Just the fact that you need to ask permission to do what you want with a device you legally purchased and own should be troubling enough. Lots of people were reasonably angered by this story, and a petition sprung up on the White House site, urging the President to reinstate the exemption:

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.

The petition itself was actually set up by Sina Khanifar, who used to run a business around unlocking phones, and was threatened by Motorola back in 2005. It was that experience that led to the original attempt to convince the Librarian of Congress to establish the unlocking exemption from the DMCA. He has explained why the exemption is important, and how this simple change not only makes something perfectly reasonable against the law, but how it effectively kills off the business he had built around unlocking phones and helping consumers actually use what they want. And, contrary to what some claim about the need to keep phones locked, he points out that there are already contractual ways to incentivize people to keep their phones locked. Lots of carriers have long term contracts with large early termination fees. They don’t need the threat of copyright penalties on top of that as well.

Motorola’s cease and desist letter didn’t claim that I was illegally distributing their copyrighted software. Instead, it claimed that I was “distributing software … for the purpose of circumventing the protection measures” associated with their copyrighted software. There is a subtle but meaningful difference.

The DMCA includes anti-circumvention provisions that are intended to protect music and movie owners who want to distribute their work digitally, but are afraid of piracy. The provisions prohibit anyone from circumventing the locks that control access to copyrighted works. For example, DVDs are protected by a Digital Rights Management (DRM) system that attempts to prevent anyone from easily making copies of movies. The DMCA prohibits circumventing that type of protection system.

But unlocking a phone has nothing to do with copyright infringement, and using the DMCA to prosecute unlocking cell phones is not what the law was intended for. If Motorola’s interpretation of the DMCA were valid, companies would be able to create simple software security mechanisms that legally prevent a customer from using a device in any way except that in which the manufacturer intended.

As we’ve noted time and time again, the DMCA anti-circumvention clause has little to do with basic copyright, and everything to do with big companies trying to control what you thought you had purchased.

The petition needs to get to 100,000 signatures by February 23rd, and is currently sitting at about 62,000. It’s possible, but it may be difficult. And, of course, it’s not even clear what (if anything) the administration can really do. The DMCA exemption rulemaking only comes around every three years. Having them jump in with an “off-year” change would be unprecedented — and could potentially lead to legal challenges. Congress, however, could step in and fix things with a bit of regulation, but it’s unclear if they have the appetite to do that. Still, having people speak out and show that they think this bit of copyright law is crazy and restrictive seems like a good thing.

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Comments on “White House Petition On Legalizing Unlocking Of Mobile Phones Tries To Pass 100,000 Signature Threshold”

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John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Legal

The law specifically allows for the Library of Congress review. In effect, Congress has delegated the authority for making such legal/illegal decisions.

There is a tradition of doing this in all sorts of areas (including warmaking powers), and it generally passes constitutional muster. Whether it should or not is a different question (I don’t think it should).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Legal

Yep, they do this all over the place. A bunch of the alphabet soup bureaucracy has these powers. The EPA can create environmental rules, the FCC can create communications rules, etc. The catch is that Congress can revoke their authority at any time (yeah, fat chance.)

I don’t like it, either. Instead of being able to merely check federal, state, and local statutes (which are monstrously large themselves), a person also has to check the rules made by every agency, in order to simply comply with the law. The average person is supposed to check with the Librarian of Congress to see whether he deigned to allow them to unlock their own phone this year?

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Rational Decision

1. That argument could be expanded to making it illegal to DRM software, videos, and games, which has less of a chance of passing than fat cat through the eye of a needle.

I don’t know about that. Illegalizing DRM is something that we definitely do need to have happen if we’re ever going to get our stolen rights back, and if enough people get up in arms about it, it will happen.

Remember the SOPA protests, and the lesson we (re-)learned from that delightful bit of true democracy: votes trump money every time.

If we can get the message out, and explain to enough people that DRM is nothing but a hacking tool used by copyright owners to take away your control over your property and stomp on your rights, people will start pushing back. But if the people who understand the situation believe that it will never happen… that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

anonymouse says:


I am astounded that people still believe asking the question is relevant, the answers have all been the same why do you think it is going to be different with 100 000 signatures. nothing has changed with these petitions so why bother. The only way to get the attention of the law makers is to pay them big money, bribes and promises to assist them financially to get re-elected. Why waste your time with this…like anything in America it is a system set up for the business interests and they are probably the ones answering the questions anyway.

America has lost their freedom to do almost anything that big business does not want them to do, the only way to get anything done is to protest, but even then they make you a laughing stock of the world , ala the occupy movement.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: America

In europe Occupy, was greeted with “That took you long enough!” by the far left and it had quite some sympathy in the media and the general population. It resonated in the general population in Spain, Italy and Greece where it was almost made into a civil war in Italy, while millions were demonstrating in Greece and Spain. But also far left parts of Germany, Great Britain and to a far lesser extend the rest of europe were supporting it!

If anyone made Occupy a laughing stock it was the US mainstream media and BBC, but i digress. Mainland europe and several other countries were discussing the problems with financial extravaganza (Government, Stock exchanges and Banks), education (the student debts) and poverty since they are also pertinent internationally.

Today the thing is that education and poverty are budgets getting slashed quite heavily here. The banks have taken some economic beating but the problematic parts of their business is 100% unchanged, while the stock exchange has made a few small adjustments and called it a day. So much for nothing.

PolyTien (profile) says:

Please Help!

If this illegal issue bothers you, and you want to have the option to be able to unlock a device you believe you paid for and own, then sign this official Petition and pass it along: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/make-unlocking-cell-phones-legal/1g9KhZG7

There’s still time! 11 days left to get 100,000 minimum signatures.. At present, there is 65,000 sigs.. Please pass this petition link around to help make a difference! And, btw you don’t have to reside in the USA to sign, and if u need to create an account u don’t have to put any identifying info in it

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Please Help!

If this illegal issue bothers you, and you want to have the option to be able to unlock a device you believe you paid for and own, then sign this official Petition and pass it along: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/make-unlocking-cell-phones-legal/1g9KhZG7

Did you not notice that this petition is exactly what this article is about?

Mr. Applegate says:

Re: Re: Response to: Mr. Applegate on Feb 11th, 2013 @ 7:08pm

Well last time I checked I don’t get a cheaper rate if I don’t buy a contract phone. The monthly fees are exactly the same if I bring my device or if I buy a contract phone. So the price of a contract phone is $99. The price of an unlocked phone is about $690.

Both phones will have the exact same monthly charges. It isn’t like I am going to turn off my phone service if I buy an unlocked phone.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Response to: Mr. Applegate on Feb 11th, 2013 @ 7:08pm

If you are talking about subsidized phones the initial price is $99, but there is a monthly fee added to that contract, that doubles the total in the end of the contract for what you actually paid for the phone.

They do charge for the phone in gentle monthly fees, that are disguised as minimum usage fee per month, which includes the value necessary to cover the phone full retail price and in some cases double that, the termination fees are also calculated with base on that full retail price, that is why they go down the longer you use that plan.


Now T-Mobile?s gearing up to try to compete by changing the game. They?ve finally secured a deal to put the iPhone on their network. They have made the radical and perhaps brilliant decision to sell it and other smartphones without subsidy. That?ll make the devices a lot more expensive. Consumers will be surprised to learn that the $199 iPhone 5 actually retails for $649. AT&T and Verizon essentially pay Apple the full price, sell it to you for the low price, and make it up by charging you more every month.

Source: http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2012/12/t_mobile_end_smartphone_subsidies_paying_more_for_your_phone_is_good_for.html


A $99 phone actually is the carrier mining the fools pockets.
You could have a $0 smartphone all you have to do is divide the full retail price by 24 months and save that much every month it will cost you less than if you let other do it and administer it for you.

R.H. (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Response to: Mr. Applegate on Feb 11th, 2013 @ 7:08pm

That’s only on T-Mobile though. On the other networks it’s still the same.

Side note concerning T-Mobile’s network coverage: I was considering switching to T-Mobile from Sprint for my next device (since I can’t get a Nexus 4 that works on Sprint). However, a friend with T-mobile service visited my apartment last week and we discovered that T-Mobile not only doesn’t have 4G service at my apartment, they don’t even have 3G coverage here >_

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I’m only pointing out that if you want an unlocked phone you can buy one.Didn’t say it was cheap…but sometimes you can save money.
I have an unlocked phone and it is way cheaper for me to chose a no contract plan with tmobile than to go with the offerings of att or verizon.I have choices now that I didn’t have before and sometimes that is worth way more than the price of the phone…still signed the petition though.

Anonymous Coward says:

regardless of the ‘official’ reasons, the real reasons the needed limit of signatures were raised was so people would get fed up and not bother to sign, thinking that the limit would never be reached and so those that are supposed to act on the petitions didn’t have to. we would hate for politicians or their staff to actually have to do something now, wouldn’t we, especially if it may be of benefit to the people!

Cell Phone Signs (user link) says:

ObamaPhone program is a free support system by the government and it gives lifeline assistance to 10 million low-income Americans. Isn?t it a great idea to help the people who are in need by giving them cell phones which can be used in case of emergencies and helping them getting in touch with the prospective employers.

rosie says:

8 days and 30,000 signatures guess Facebook friends need to share this like wildfire.

I was only going to unlock a cellphone to use certain features. Like the last 2 Samsung Windows phones before Windows Phone 8, required you to unlock it to debrand (void your warranty) to download an update. This was the wireless provider AT&T and Samsung’s fault for not providing the update. Unlocking is basically the same thing as voiding the warranty, so I don’t understand why the Librarian of Congress feels the need to protect the providers. The LOC sucks anyway when giving access to the public. “You must be a researcher to enter this building.” Well, thanks. This what I get in the city of the free and home of the brave, Washington DC

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