So what, exactly, is the Obama administration's position on whether consumers should be allowed to unlock their cell phones?
To no one's surprise, the issue did not merit a mention in last week's State of the Union address, but the administration will soon have to offer an opinion, in keeping with its own protocols for responding to online petitions submitted through the " We the people" section of the White House Website.
This week, the petition seeking to legitimize unlocking cell phones so that they can be used with multiple carriers crossed the threshold of 100,000 signatures required to elicit an official administration response.
The petition was started by Sina Khanifer, who as a college student studying abroad unlocked his cell phone so that it would work with a carrier operating in Great Britain. After his first year of school ended in 2004, Khanifer joined with a programmer and developed an application to enable consumers to easily unlock their own devices.
That application became the basis for a business venture, Cell-Unlock.com, which eventually caught the eye of Motorola, whose attorneys sent Khanifer a letter in September 2005 warning that his phone-unlocking operation was in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
Whether the DMCA should extend to users' ability to unlock their cell phones has been a subject of considerable debate among the wireless industry and consumer advocates. In October 2012, the librarian of Congress, which has authority to grant exemptions to certain DMCA provisions, determined that it is indeed unlawful to unlock phones purchased after Jan. 26 of this year, a decision that prompted Khanifer to petition the White House to repudiate the restriction.
"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 reads.
"Given that the decision was made by the librarian of Congress, who isn't directly beholden to votes, I think it's important that the White House take action to protect consumers," Khanifer told CIO.com in an email. "The DMCA's anti-circumvention section is poorly written, and there are a lot of groups who agree that it should be changed if not rescinded. Pressure from the White House could well make the difference."
CTIA, the principal trade group representing the wireless industry, has argued that locked phones are a foundational element of carriers' business model. Further, the association contends that its members, notably the four nationwide carriers, have been relaxing their policies on unlocking phones, and will free a device to operate on other networks at users' request in certain situations, such as a trip overseas.
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