Obama administration must explain cell phone unlocking ban

Obama administration must explain cell phone unlocking ban
An online petition asking for the White House to overturn a law that prohibits unlocking cell phones has garnered over 100,000 signatures, requiring the Obama administration to offer an official response.

Even after the White House raised the threshold of signatures required to have petitions hosted on their ‘We the People’ webpage warrant a response, 103,904 people as of Thursday afternoon signed on to see what the president has to say.

"I think it's terrific," Yale visiting fellow and former Republican Hill staffer Derek Khanna tells CNet’s Declan McCullagh. "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."

The petition, ‘Make Unlocking Cell Phones Legal,’ was created on January 24 in hopes of having the White House address a decision that went into effect two days later making unlocking cell phones illegal. Previously, Americans have been free to purchase mobile devices out-of-the-box and “unlock” them in order to use certain phones with an array of available coverage providers. Two days after the petition went live, though, so did a decision from the Librarian of Congress that made unlocking cell phones illegal.

“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 author of the petition pleads on the WhiteHouse.gov page. With the new law in place, “Consumers will be forced to pay exorbitant roaming fees to make calls while traveling abroad,” the petition claims. “It reduces consumer choice, and decreases the resale value of devices that consumers have paid for in full.”

Now with more than enough signatures to garner a response, a member of the Obama administration will be required to address the issue. That doesn’t mean that the White House will just be able to turn things around, though. The law that went into effect on January 26 was made by Librarian of Congress James Hadley Billington, who holds a legislative branch position and not one under Obama’s sector. Mr. Billington was tasked with signing off on the law since the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act allows the Library of Congress to regulate certain devices in regards to copyright law. And according to the document filed by the LoC, the trade association made up of wireless service provider — CTIA — alerted the Obama administration that an exemption that would legalize unlocking phones would be an unnecessary maneuver.

“CTIA explained that the practice of locking cell phones is an essential part of the wireless industry’s predominant business model, which involves subsidizing the cost of wireless handsets in exchange for a commitment from the customer that the phone will be used on that carrier’s service so that the subsidy can eventually be recouped by the carrier,” his report reads. “CTIA alleged that the industry has been plagued by ‘large scale phone trafficking operations’ that buy large quantities of pre-paid phones, unlock them, and resell them in foreign markets where carriers do not subsidize handsets. On the question of noninfringing use, CTIA asserted that the Section 117 privileges do not apply because owners of wireless devices do not necessarily own the software on those devices.”

Breaking it down earlier this month for NPR, correspondent Laura Sydell said the legislation simply means, "if you buy a phone from AT&T and get a two-year contract, even when that contract is up, you will still have to ask permission from AT&T to change your phone to a new carrier.”

And while that will stay true for the unforeseeable future, the White House will at least have to weigh in on the matter. Just because Obama won’t be able to intervene in the Library of Congress-penned order doesn’t mean there isn’t a solution, though. CNet’s McCullagh calls the petition “partly symbolic,” but notes that “a nudge” from the White House could lead to reform in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Previously, the White House’s ‘We the People’ petitions required only 25,000 signatures to receive a response.