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Petition to legalize phone unlocking reaches goal

Devin Coldewey / NBC News

A petition to rescind the recent decision making personal unlocking of cell phones illegal has reached the 100,000 signatures necessary for an official response from the administration.

Unlocking is the process of removing carrier restrictions on a device; For instance, a phone bought at Verizon might only work on its network, even if its hardware is compatible with AT&T's network. By unlocking it, a user could take their phone to another network and avoid having to buy a new one.

Various carriers took different approaches to unlocking phones, some offering unlocked phones out of the box, some making the process a chore. But if you wanted to do it, you generally could.

That is, until October of 2012 brought a decision from the Librarian of Congress that, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), unlocking your own phone was technically illegal, and could only be done with carrier permission. A 90-day grace period allowed one last chance to unlock, but ended on Jan. 26, at which point it became forbidden by law.

The decision was criticized widely by groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation for removing consumer options for no good reason. Owners of phones, they argued, should be able to do whatever they like with them — from installing custom software to unlocking the device for new carriers.

Shortly before unlocking became officially illegal, a petition on the We The People site was started, asking for the decision to be rescinded, or if that wasn't possible, to pass a law allowing phone unlocking. With just two days left before its expiration, it hit the 100,000-signature mark that means the administration will issue an official response.

It's doubtful that unlocking will be made legal again in a hurry (such legislation would certainly take time), but at the very least, it is clear that many are concerned about this perceived misstep in tech governance.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is