Proponents of cellphone unlocking (and why wouldn’t that include everyone), have until Saturday to reach 100,000 signatures — the threshold the Obama administration set for responding to petitions on its We the People site. The petition still needs more than 13,000 signatures to hit the minimum of 100,000 signatures.
Even if they hit their target and win over the administration, it’s not clear the White House can do much to help.
Unlocking a phone allows you to change carriers. It is also useful for international travelers who need their phones to work on different networks. In the United States, for example, GSM carriers, T-Mobile and AT&T Mobility may work on each others network if the phone is unlocked.
An obscure change in federal law makes it illegal to switch without permission from your carrier. NPR explains the dilema:
Sina Khanifar, who is backing the petition, has been personally affected by the rules. In 2005, he left California to go to school in England.
“I had taken a phone from here in California with me. While I was there, I couldn’t use it,” he said.
Khanifar had a Motorola Razr. The phone was locked into AT&T’s network, but there was no AT&T in England, so Khanifar figured out a way to unlock his phone and connect it to a British carrier. He started a business selling the unlocking software to other travelers who might be stuck the way he was.
“It was great. It was helping me pay my college tuition,” he said. Until one day, “I got a cease-and-desist letter from Motorola.”
Khanifar said the letter charged him with violating copyright law. He faced up to five years in prison for unlocking his phone. An American civil liberties group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, stepped in to help him.
The group petitioned the copyright office in Washington, D.C. EFF staff attorney Mitch Stoltz said “the copyright office created a legal shield for people who are unlocking their cellphones.”
But the shield only lasts for three years at a time. Then the Copyright Office, which is part of the Library of Congress, has to renew it.
Now, 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.
Outside an Apple store in San Francisco, a lot of iPhone users, including Emil Sarkisov, found the reasoning perplexing.
“Once my contract is up — and I’m not going to give up my phone when I give back the contract, right? — I still keep the phone,” he said. “So why can’t I do whatever I want with it?”
The petitioners have until Friday to get 100,000 signers.
Khanifar has since passed control of his Cell-Unlock.com to his brother, but the site is not taking any orders from the U.S. right now. Khanifar’s main focus at the moment is OpenSignal, which provides crowd-sourced cell carrier coverage maps.
See Dailywireless: Unlocking Phones Illegal Starting Tomorrow