Will an online petition make it safe to unlock your cellphone again?
Early this morning (Feb. 21), a petition to make unlocking cellphones legal reached the 100,000-name threshold that mandates a response from the White House.
On Wednesday alone, 15,000 people had signed the petition, which is housed on the White House website's "We the People" section.
Since Jan. 26, you've been in a legal gray area if you unlocked your cellphone to make it work on a different carrier's network.
For 6 years, it was legal to unlock your phone, thanks to two consecutive 3-year exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) granted by the Librarian of Congress.
Last year, the Librarian decided to not renew the exemption.
That change prompted San Francisco mobile-software developer Sina Khanifar to start the White House petition.
It makes sense that Khanifar would start the movement — he was involved in the case that got the original unlocking exemption in the first place.
Khanifar, cofounder of OpenSignal, a crowd-sourced cellphone coverage service, used to run a company that unlocked phones.
When he received a cease-and-desist notice from Motorola in 2005, his case was taken up by Jennifer Granick, a digital-rights lawyer who was then at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and is now director of civil liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.
Granick petitioned the Library of Congress for the original unlocking exemption in 2006 and helped get it renewed in 2009.
Khanifar sent more than 1,600 emails to rally support for his White House petition, his first on the We the People site. He said many others were involved in the effort, and he hopes the petition makes the White House take another look at the DMCA.
In his opinion, the strict anti-hacking law, which was written in 1996 and passed in 1998, is too broadly written and shouldn't cover unlocking cellphones at all.
Khanifar also thinks the government applies the DMCA inconsistently. For example, in the latest renewal, the Librarian of Congress granted an exception for jailbreaking phones, but not tablets.
"I think you bring attention to one thing, and it helps fix everything," Khanifar said.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., also questioned dropping the exemption.
Last week, DeFazio tweeted, "Librarian of Congress decided it's illegal to unlock your cell phone. Bad for military, travelers, & consumers."
If any petition gets 100,000 signatures on the We the People site, the White House says it will review the petition and issue an official response. But that doesn't mean anything will change.
If you want to unlock your phone today, you can request that your carrier do it. AT&T, for example, will unlock a phone that's out of contract and is associated with an account in good standing.
If your carrier refuses to unlock the phone and you decide instead to do it yourself, no one's sure what legal jeopardy you might put yourself in.