Petition asks Obama to legalize unlocking of mobile phones

Petition to reverse a decision by the Library of Congress making the unlocking of mobile phones illegal needs 15,000 more signatures by Saturday

More than 85,000 people have signed a Whitehouse.gov petition asking President Barack Obama to reverse a decision by the Library of Congress making the unlocking of mobile phones illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

As of Wednesday morning, the petition, started by phone unlocking entrepreneur Sina Khanifar, still needed nearly 15,000 signatures by Saturday to trigger a response by the Obama administration.

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The exemption to DMCA prosecutions for unlocking a mobile phone without the original carrier's permission expired in late January, and many digital rights activists have protested the new rules.

Unlocking a phone is typically used to switch carriers. Jailbreaking a phone for the purposes of adding software unauthorized by the carrier or phone maker remains legal under the DMCA.

It's unlikely mobile carriers will seek prosecution for individual phone users, but operators of businesses that help consumers unlock their phones could face penalties of up to five years in prison and a $500,000 fine under the DMCA.

"Unlocking phones ... is commonly used for those reselling phones, travelling internationally, and changing carriers, but also our service-members deploying abroad," Khanifar, who founded Cell-Unlock.com in 2004, wrote in an email. "This ruling will dry up an entire unlocking software industry, and will create higher barriers to protect particular dominant industries rather than promote more competition."

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Library of Congress, which with the U.S. Copyright Office reviews exemptions under the DMCA, didn't respond to a request for comments on the petition.

Although the nearly month-old petition still lacked the signatures needed for a White House response, Khanifar said this week he's optimistic 100,000 people will sign it by Saturday. The petition has recently won endorsements from Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, TCP/IP creator Vint Cerf, hacktivist group Anonymous, and others, he noted.

"I think a lot of people aren't aware of the issue, but I think a lot of people, particularly those who like to tinker with their phones, care deeply about the core of the issue: fair use and the ability to change and modify devices you purchase as you wish," he said by email.

Khanifar said he's also considering launching a group to push for DMCA reform.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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