New White House Petition May Impact Cell Phone Unlocking

By Steve Anderson February 21, 2013

Back on January 26, new rule changes impacted the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), forbidding users from unlocking new cell phones without direct permission from mobile carriers. An exception was added to the act leaving cell phone unlocking out of the issue, but the exception ended when the Library of Congress' Copyright Office got involved, leaving the exception to quietly fade away. But the user community didn't like this development, and took to the government's petition website, where a petition was established and soon garnered sufficient support to force direct comment from the White House.

The petition in question was launched by OpenSignal's Sina Khanifar, and calls for the portion of the DMCA dealing with unlocking cell phones to be rescinded. Khanifar's attempts to unlock mobile phones, which lead to the development of Cell-Unlock.com and a subsequent cease-and-desist letter from Motorola, have been largely motivated by issues of consumer choice, as Khanifar mentions as part of his petition language, saying: "Consumers will be forced to pay exorbitant roaming fees to make calls while traveling abroad. It reduces consumer choice, and decreases the resale value of devices that consumers have paid for in full. The Librarian noted that carriers are offering more unlocked phones at present, but the great majority of phones sold are still locked."

But now, Khanifar's petition has garnered the necessary signature count to force the Obama Administration to respond to the petition. Recent rule changes--possibly coming as a result of the White House being forced by its own rules to comment on a public petition requesting the construction of a Death Star space station in the grandest "Star Wars" tradition--bumped up the number of signatures required before comment would be issued to 100,000. The Khanifar petition got that number with about two days to spare.

Now the Obama Administration has a bit of a problem. Clearly, there are 100,000 people out there, minimum, who want the ability to unlock cell phones. That's a lot of potential votes for the Democrats at stake, and not exactly the kind of bloc that anyone wants to ignore. But by like token, this is an issue that would likely go against the stance of several major corporations, who are in turn contributors to both campaigns and tax bases throughout the United States. Annoying them is a bad idea as well, but for completely different reasons.

Thus, what is left for the Obama Administration to do? It risks some serious backlash on either side of the equation: losing votes is a terrible idea, especially with several Senate seats going up for grabs next year, not to mention another Presidential election a little over three years off. About the only thing it could do is arrange some kind of compromise, but that's the kind of thing that may backfire in the long run as well.

Just what the response will look like remains to be seen, but ultimately, it's going to have to be a good one to sufficiently impress 100,000 users who want their unlocking back.




Edited by Brooke Neuman

Contributing TechZone360 Writer

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