Unlocking Cell Phones and the White House Petition

Unlocking Cell Phones and the White House Petition

Unlocking Cellphones is now illegal, but a White House petition may change that.
(Image courtesy of Leaksource)

It used to be that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) had an exception which allowed unlocking cellphones (i.e., unlocking the phone from carrier exclusivity through the use of an unlock code — purchased from a third-party or obtained directly from the carrier).  However, in October of 2012, the Librarian of Congress decided that this exception was no longer valid, and so unlocking cellphones would now be illegal and subject to prosecution, fines, and all the other fun stuff that illegality brings.

Not too long thereafter, Sina Khanifar decided that this was unfair, unreasonable, and shouldn’t be the case, so Sinfa started a petition on the White House petition site to get this change rescinded.  (Take a look at Sina’s post on the topic from February 3, 2013.)  And believe it or not, today the White House issued an official response, wherein they agreed that you should be able to unlock your phone without risk of criminal penalties or prosecution.  So score one for the voice of the people!

While at first blush this may seem like an easy call, during a discussion about this a couple of weeks back, some folks on Gear Diary had pointed out that when you get a phone through a carrier (via a pretty large discount in the price by agreeing to a two-year contract), it’s not unreasonable for those carriers to expect to lock you in for that period; after all, you’ve signed a contract!

On the flip side, of course, are issues like:  What if the two-year contract has expired?  What if you give your old iPhone to your kid as a gift, and it no longer even has a phone number associated with it (making it just an iPod Touch in essence)?  How would this be enforceable; by the government tracking all the phones in the country and getting a notification if one were unlocked?  (Ugh!)  And of course there is the issue of:  I paid for this thing, how come it isn’t mine?  (And after the contract is up, I believe it should be.  You paid your dues, as it were.)

But in any event, the White House has now weighed in, and hopefully this will soon be a closed issue.  Thank you, Voice of the People!  And thanks too to the White House, both for responding, and for their thoughtful response.  (Clearly there are some tech savvy people in the White House.)

So what’s your opinion?  Think it’s reasonable for phone companies and manufacturers to prevent you from unlocking your phone?  Or do you think it’s their prerogative?  Share your thoughts with us below!

About the Author

Douglas Moran
Doug is a nerd from way back, falling for a Commodore PET at the age of 15, and never looking back. Riding the nerd wave, he got a Computer Science degree and entered the tech industry at a young age, deciding after a year and a half of front-line phone technical support that he should try something, *anything* else. He settled on technical writing, and has been cranking out documentation for companies like Unisys, SGI, Cisco, Juniper, and many others ever since. He is nothing short of ecstatic to be working for H-P from his home base in Austin.
  • loopyduck

    “How would this been enforceable; by the government tracking all the phones in the country and getting a notification if one were jailbroken?”

    Probably just a typo, but jailbreaking is still legit… at least if it’s with a phone.

    • Thanks for spotting that, Loopy. I’ll fix it now. =)

      • loopyduck

        I find the White House statement interesting: “neither criminal law nor technological locks should prevent consumers from switching carriers WHEN THEY ARE NO LONGER BOUND BY A SERVICE AGREEMENT OR OTHER OBLIGATION,” emphasis added (I kinda wish Disqus could do bold and italics). So folks who want to unlock their phones for travel (or for areas with lousy reception) would still be stuck. In fact, it’s not really a different situation from what it is now (in fact, T-Mobile will let you unlock a phone even while you’re on contract after 60 (90?) days), though I suppose this would enshrine it in law.

        What would be a much bigger leap forward is getting rid of the whitelists that Verizon and Sprint use, so that folks can brings phones from one of those networks to the other.

  • Doug Miller

    Unlock codes from the carrier are still allowed; it’s just third party unlock codes that are no longer valid exceptions to the DMCA, and that’s only for phone purchased after January 26 – if you owned the phone already prior to that date, you may still unlock it without fear of being sued.

    Sadly, the White House opinion has no force of law. The Librarian of Congress reports to the legislative branch, not the executive branch.

    It should be noted that all US carriers claim that they will be happy to provide unlock codes to phones no longer under contract. Verizon is not a GSM carrier, though they sell global phones with GSM SIMs, and they have and will provide unlock codes to customers in good standing even when they phone is under contract for international use – I happen to have one of those phones, and did have it unlocked, free of charge.

    I do think that unlocking should be allowable, but I think restricting it to phones no longer under subsidy contract is a valid exception.

    I do think that it’s unlikely that carriers would sue individual consumers who unlocked personal phones. I am sure that the carriers are more concerned about people bulk-purchasing and then reselling phones that were unlocked without authorization on secondary markets.

    Of course, I also think that the DMCA should be scrapped anyway…