The headlines have been fearmongering at their worst, claiming that a recent Library of Congress ruling made the unlocking of smartphones purchased after Jan. 26 illegal. It didn't. But it did create a bad situation that should be corrected, which is what an online petition is trying to get the White House to change. You should sign the petition today -- the deadline for signatures -- and the Library of Congress should change its decision. It's crossed the 100,000-signature threshold that requires the White House to review it, but the more signatures, the stronger the call to action for the White House and Congress to hear.
Thanks to those misleading and hysterical news stories, I had ignored the debate and initially dismissed the petition as silly. But it's not. Its creator, Sina Khanifar, has crafted an eminently reasonable proposal, and after speaking with him, I applaud his rationality on an issue that so many have been irrational about. Even accounting for his direct interest -- he used to sell phone-unlocking services -- Khanifar's reasoning is sounds and compelling.
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Here's the issue: When you buy a subsidized smartphone (as most Americans do), you buy a device locked to a carrier's domestic network, even if it has a SIM slot that allows swapping and, thus, running on a different carrier's network. It makes sense that a carrier that just subsidized the price of that new iPhone 5, BlackBerry Z10, Windows Phone, or Android smartphone to the tune of $200 to $400 wants to make sure you don't switch to a different network and leave it in the lurch for the subsidy. But the Library of Congress ruling goes about this the wrong way.
(Note: The Library of Congress has the authority to determine what constitutes legal copying and access to information devices, so it has ruled that jailbreaking is perfectly legal, as is ripping for personal use the media you buy. But the law -- the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA -- that gives the LOC this power also forbids U.S. companies from creating software to break copy protection on such personal media, which is why the HandBrake software most often used to do so is French. For some reason, the DMCA also grants the LOC the power to determine unlocking rules for phones.)
As Khanifar notes, when you buy a subsidized phone -- whether a smartphone or a regular cellphone -- you agree to pay an early termination fee if you break the contract. If you choose to unlock your smartphone for use on another domestic network, you should be able to do so as long as you pay that fee to the original carrier so that it recoups that subsidy. You've already agreed to do so when you signed that contract.
But the LOC's policy doesn't satisfy a real need: international roaming. Under the LOC's rules, you must now get carriers' permission to unlock your phone for use abroad. The U.S. carriers have been pretty good about allowing such unlocked use abroad, but they shouldn't have that power to decide who can roam unlocked and who cannot. After all, they routinely denied such unlocked roaming in the past. Apple forced the issue on the iPad, the LOC declared unlocking was the customer's choice for smartphones, and since then carriers have been more reasonable across the board. Now the LOC has backpedaled, returning the decision to the carriers.