Should it be against the law to unlock your own cell phone to switch carriers?
More than 100,000 people who have signed a petition to the White House don't think so.
But the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, does, and in October he decided to exercise his office's right to determine that consumers must get permission from carriers (good luck with that) before doing so, effective Jan. 24.
In Billington's view, unlocking one's own phone should no longer be considered an exception to the Digital Media Copyright Act (DMCA), passed by Congress in 1998 and signed by President Bill Clinton. The DMCA, among other things, makes it illegal to circumvent a technological access control, such as a phone's ability to access wireless networks.
The new rule modifies the exemption on phone software or firmware to apply only within 90 days "if the operator of the wireless communications network to which the handset is locked has failed to unlock it within a reasonable period of time following a request by the owner of the wireless telephone handset" and applies only when the operator of the new network consents to the unlocking and access.
The ruling notes that the amendment was modified from what proponents, who include several top carriers and carrier associations wanted because "In order to align the exemption to current market realities, it applies only to phones acquired prior to the effective date of the exemption or within 90 days thereafter."
In their petition to President Obama, created Jan. 24, the same day the rule change took effect, opponents warn that without unlocked phones "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."
The White House should either ask the Librarian to rescind the decision or push its own "legalize unlocking bill," petitioners say.
The Executive Branch responds to all petitions that gather more than 100,000 signatures, so we'll soon find out where the president stands. As of Thursday afternoon, signatures totaled 104,486.
CTIA-The Wireless Association, the industry trade group supporting carriers, heavily backed the Librarian's change. In a Jan. 26 blog post, association vice president and counsel Michael Altschul argued that a phone still in contract is the same as a car that has not been fully financed.
Same as a Car
"That's all that is happening here: consumers who pay the full price for a phone can take that phone to the carrier (or carriers) of their choice," Altschul said. "However, if a carrier subsidized the price of the phone in exchange for the consumer's agreement to use the phone on that carrier's network, the consumer can only transfer the phone to a new carrier once the terms of the contract (or the carrier's unlocking policy) have been satisfied."
But Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, dismissed that rationale.
"The LOC's rule was a blatant example of kowtowing to lobbyists, not a valiant attempt to thwart cellular evildoers," King told us. "It isn't so much that the rule is unenforceable but that enforcement would be an unnecessary strain on already overstressed police departments and also spotlight just how idiotic the rule actually is."