100,000+ Americans demand legal right to unlock phone

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Mobile

Mobile phone lockedOn Saturday January 26, US citizens lost the right to unlock our mobile phones.

On Thursday February 21, two days before the deadline to get enough petition signers to trigger the administration into re-examining an issue, 100,000 annoyed people demanded that that right be given back.

With the petition having successfully hit the 100,000 required participants - a number the administration got after quadrupling the number usually required to trigger the public address of an issue - the administration is now being forced into the battle between consumer rights/fair use advocates and the copyright regulators who made it illegal to unlock mobile phones purchased after January 26.

You see, after January 26, if you were to try to unlock your phone, you would run the risk of getting sued and having to pay a fine of $2,500.

According to Public Knowledge, a group that champions open access to knowledge, punishment for unlocking a phone that you have purchased could reach a gasp-worthy $500,000 in fines and imprisonment for 5 years.

Angry Mob cartoon

Would anybody dare to prosecute a consumer who has the audacity to unlock a phone, so as to use it with a preferred carrier, for example?

Probably not.

The Copyright Office re-examines exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) [PDF] every three years.

Last year, the carriers told the Copyright Office that it didn't oppose consumers unlocking their phones.

Some carriers even provide unlocking service themselves, according to Wired's David Kravets, and that won't change now.

Wired quoted James Baldinger, a lawyer for TracFone and for many of the carriers, on this issue:

"The carriers' position has … never been about individual consumers. Individual consumers have never been the target of any of the lawsuits or enforcement proceedings or investigations. … [The carriers] are concerned about traffickers that steal subsidies and in the end increase the cost of wireless for consumers across the United States."

Unfortunately, the carriers now have the law on their side if they decide to sue consumers over the practice of unlocking phones.

You can still sign the petition here.

Whereas the administration has committed to providing a response to petitions such as this, it apparently doesn't hold itself to any deadline for doing so.

For example, one successful petition, filed in May 2012, asked the government to "require free access over the internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research".

The White House took nine months to respond. In fact, it responded on Monday.

Obviously, we shouldn't hold our breath. But hopefully, the administration will respond to this pro-consumer issue of unlocking phones in a more timely fashion.


Locked Mobile Phone and angry mob images from Shutterstock.

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5 Responses to 100,000+ Americans demand legal right to unlock phone

  1. Felicity Merriman · 414 days ago

    This would be a different story in the case of CDMA, though. Unless if your Verizon has a GSM radio on it, as in the case of certain HTCs and other smartphones, you'd be tied to their network.

  2. @playfair · 414 days ago

    Couldn't agree more. You asked for it:

    http://wh.gov/wlTI

  3. Pieter Bekkers · 414 days ago

    So, the American tourist who wants to visit Australia, must now leave his Mobile phone (cell phone in their jargon) in the U.S.A. He is not able to take the SIM card out on arrival in Australia and install an Australian Telco SIM card. The phone is still locked after all.
    Two remedies: 1) do not buy a locked phone and 2) very painful-- International roaming.

  4. pduran · 413 days ago

    It's real simple. Of course we should have the right jailbreak and tinker with anything. They should also be able to terminate your service charge the appropriate termination fee (agreed to at the time of signing a contract) and then bar you from their network. Their only recourse should be shutting the door on you. This stuff about making it a crime is just absolutely nutty. 5 years in jail for unlocking. Are you serious? America, we need to wake up and start demanding a return to a nation of free people not a nation of regulated people. You anti gun folks take notice, you better come to grips with firearms and start supporting peoples freedoms, even the ones you dont want to take advantage of, because you'll lose everything if you dont stand up for everyones rights.

  5. Larry M · 413 days ago

    This is a business model issue, no government intervention required. US carriers subsidize the cost ot mobile phones, selling them cheaply but requiring the buyer to sign up for a multi-year contract with fees high enough to cover the cost of the handset.

    If too many users circumvent the agreement by unlocking the phone and moving to a cheaper carrier, the original carrier should raise the price of the phone and lower the monthly fee, not go whining to the government for help. That's the European business model.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.