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Over 100,000 sign White House petition for handset unlocking

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The Obama administration is going to have to answer to mobile phone users after more than 100,000 people signed a petition calling for the unlocking of handsets to be made legal again.

The protest was sparked by the decision by the Librarian of Congress last October to ban the unlocking of handsets under the latest interpretation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The 1998 law states "No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title."

The Librarian of Congress has the right to grant exemptions to the DMCA and did so in the case of phone unlocking in 2006 and 2010. But the current holder of that position – the wonderfully named James Hadley Billington – decided that maybe the phone companies were right and you really should be legally tied to a carrier.

Interestingly, Mr. Billington also ruled that jailbreaking phones so that you can add third-party applications is still legal, but not for tablets. As fondleslabs shrink and phones expand one wonders how rich that particular ruling is going to make patent lawyers.

The wireless business pressure group CTIA was quick to remind users of the consequences of the decision.

"The penalties for unlocking a subsidized wireless phone without carrier consent can be severe," it warned in a blog post. "Civil penalties are based on the carrier's actual damages and any additional profits of the violator, or a court can award statutory damages of not less than $200 or more than $2,500 per individual act."

There is a get-out clause, in that handsets can still be unlocked if the network operator gives permission. El Reg suspects that asking your phone company to let you go to a rival early on in your contract will elicit a two-letter response – possibly with a four-letter prefix depending how tired the call-center operative is – but CTIA has said that manufacturers might allow unlocking after the contract has expired.

Mobile operators argue that locking of handsets is essential, since they have to subsidize the cost of the hardware and need to make their money back over the course of a contract. CTIA also says it stops "large scale phone trafficking operations" from prospering – other than their own, some might say.

Meanwhile, consumer advocates claim that the practice locks buyers into a particular provider and harms competition, which is why Verizon and AT&T have such a strong duopoly over mobile communications in the Land of the Free, and US users typically pay more per month than their European counterparts.

"Consumers will be forced to pay exorbitant roaming fees to make calls while traveling abroad," the petition reads. "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 petition calls for the White House to ask the Librarian to rescind his decision (although the executive branch of government has no power to force the change) or to introduce legislation to make unlocking legal again. Given the problems any bill has getting through a pathologically divided Congress at the moment, there's not a chance in hell of that happening.

This petition is one of the first to reach the new 100,000 signature limit set by the Obama administration to guarantee a response, after it raised the threshold required for an official response from 25,000 back in January, up from 5,000 when the idea was first conceived in 2011. The change came after a big increase in use of the petition system and a variety of jocular requests for comment on such matters as the possibility of the US building a Death Star.

Now that the 100,000 signature limit has been reached, the White House will have to at least comment on the issue. However, it seems likely that a lot of people are going to be disappointed in their response. ®

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