You probably don’t have as much control over your cell phone as you think: Thanks to a bizarre enforcement of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that bars “circumventing digital locks“, consumers don’t have the right to unlock a phone they paid for — but a We The People petition that just passed the 100,000 signature response threshold asks the Obama administration to help fix this glaring consumer choice issue.
The petition provides a good summary of the situation:
The Librarian of Congress decided in October 2012 that unlocking of cell phones would be removed from the exceptions to the DMCA.
As of January 26, consumers will no longer be able unlock their phones for use on a different network without carrier permission, even after their contract has expired.
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.
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.
As the petition notes, the heart of the issue is what rights consumers have over a product they own and if the Librarian’s decision protects the profits of big name wireless carriers at the expense of those rights. The Librarian’s office has sided with consumers before on this issue: It granted exemptions for unlocking phones in 2006 and 2010, but following the implementation of the new decision consumers could face up to $2,500 per unlocked phone in a civil suit and $500,000 or five years in prison in a criminal case where the unlocking is done for “commercial advantage” if carriers take the unlocker to court and win.
Despite the popularity of the petition, there is a jurisdictional dispute as noted by Jon Healey at the Los Angeles Times: “The Library of Congress is a legislative branch agency, not one subject to presidential oversight” and “the law provides no avenue for appealing the librarian’s decisions.” And with the President’s legislative plate already filled to the brim with immigration reform and the looming sequester, it seems unlikely the administration will expend political capital on this issue — even if the situation does effect the 85 percent of Americans who own mobile phones.