Future Tense

White House Petition Aims To Overturn Ban on Unlocked Cellphones

Librarian of Congress James Billington in 2009

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in 2009

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

As of this past weekend, if you unlock your cellphone—that is, alter it so that it will work on a network other than that of the carrier from which you purchased it—you could be breaking the law. The rule change comes not from Congress, per se, but by fiat of the Library of Congress, which decided in October to close an exemption in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act that had made the practice legal.

The change went into effect Saturday, and some techies have been howling. “The idea that a decision that will affect so many, and involves so much money, could rest on a single unelected person is bizarre at best and absurd at worst,” Mark Sullivan wrote in PCWorld. Derek Khanna, the former Republican Study Committee staffer who made news last fall as the author of a policy memo on copyright reform that went viral, called the rule “the most ridiculous law of 2013 so far.”

Now Sina Khanifar, a 27-year-old entrepreneur from San Francisco, is trying to galvanize the backlash with a petition on WhiteHouse.gov: “Make Unlocking Cell Phones Legal.” From the petition:

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.

When I talked to Khanifar by phone Monday, he told me the issue is “near and dear” to him. “My first company, while I was in college, was unlocking phones. It’s actually what got me through college.” It also nearly got him in trouble: Khanifar says Motorola tried to sue him over a website he had created that told people how to unlock its Razr phone, a big seller at the time. A couple of academic lawyers took his side, he says, and the suit never materialized. Today the story might be different.

The Library of Congress justified its decision by pointing out that wireless carriers’ business models rely on being able to lock customers into contracts. But Khanifar points out that unlocking a phone doesn’t get you out of your contract, it just makes it non-exclusive. He says he has grown accustomed to swapping out the SIM card on his own unlocked device when he travels overseas, which he does frequently. “I know I’m going to hate it when I go abroad and can’t use my iPhone,” he says. “The whole arrangement just doesn’t make much sense.”

His petition, created on Jan. 24, had racked up some 28,000 signatures as of Monday afternoon. Until recently, that would have been enough to prompt an official response, but the White House recently hiked that threshold from 25,000 to 100,000. Khanifar says that’s a high bar, but he’s optimistic he can get there.  

Khanna, the former RSC staffer, says he supports Khanifar’s petition, but he’s also hoping to mobilize some more traditional activism around the issue. “I think it’s one of those things where you need to go out and show that there are actually people who are incensed by this. That there are people who think this is a big deal and a clear example of excessive regulation.* I’m trying to figure out the next steps.”

The White House petition page is here.

*Correction, Monday, Jan. 28, 5:29 p.m.: Due to a transcription error, this post originally misquoted Derek Khanna as calling the cellphone unlocking rule an example of “super-regulation.” He actually said “excessive regulation.”