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Law Change Makes It Harder To Unlock Cellphones

Posted: February 20, 2013

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A copyright ruling from the Library of Congress covers whether people may buy a phone from one carrier and then use it with another. A recent change makes it illegal to unlock a phone, or untie it from the original carrier, without permission. But some people are petitioning the White House to undo that change.

Maybe you don't like your mobile phone carrier, but you like your phone and you want to keep it but change providers. An obscure change in federal law makes it illegal to switch without permission from your carrier.

If you have, for example, AT&T, in order to switch to T-Mobile you have to unlock the phone, and AT&T can now stop you from doing that.

The change in the copyright law has some people upset, and they're petitioning the White House for a fix.

Sina Khanifar, who is backing the petition, has been personally affected by the rules. In 2005, he left California to go to school in England.

"I had taken a phone from here in California with me. While I was there, I couldn't use it," he said.

Khanifar had a Motorola Razr. The phone was locked into AT&T's network, but there was no AT&T in England, so Khanifar figured out a way to unlock his phone and connect it to a British carrier. He started a business selling the unlocking software to other travelers who might be stuck the way he was.

"It was great. It was helping me pay my college tuition," he said. Until one day, "I got a cease-and-desist letter from Motorola."

Khanifar said the letter charged him with violating copyright law. He faced up to five years in prison for unlocking his phone. An American civil liberties group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, stepped in to help him.

The group petitioned the copyright office in Washington, D.C. EFF staff attorney Mitch Stoltz said "the copyright office created a legal shield for people who are unlocking their cellphones."

But the shield only lasts for three years at a time. Then the Copyright Office, which is part of the Library of Congress, has to renew it.

Gayle Osterberg, a spokesperson from the Library of Congress, says during the last review they determined it was OK for companies to decide when to unlock a phone. So the shield wasn't renewed.

"The evidence showed that the market has changed," she said. "There are a wide variety of new phones that are already available unlocked, and cellphone carriers have relaxed their unlocking policies."

Now, if you buy a phone from AT&T and get a two-year contract, even when that contract is up, you will still have to ask permission from AT&T to change your phone to a new carrier.

Khanifar, who still travels a lot, started a petition to the White House against the rule change.

"It really just runs counter to sort of your common-sense intuition about this kind of thing," he said. "Once you bought it, you should be able to do what you want with it."

The U.S. carriers see it differently. In a statement, the CTIA, a trade group for the wireless industry, said when customers buy a phone with a two-year contract, they get a discount. So the carrier should be able to prevent them from going elsewhere.

Outside an Apple store in San Francisco, a lot of iPhone users, including Emil Sarkisov, found the reasoning perplexing.

"Once my contract is up — and I'm not going to give up my phone when I give back the contract, right? — I still keep the phone," he said. "So why can't I do whatever I want with it?"

Other cellphone users outside the store were concerned about what they would do when they travel. Calvin Su said using an American carrier is expensive outside the U.S., so he usually unlocks the phone and connects to a local carrier. Su worries that he won't be able to do that anymore.

"It will have a negative impact for me," he said.

Su can join the people who are signing the petition to the White House. The petitioners have until Friday to get 100,000 signers; they have 80,000 so far.

The White House can't tell the Library of Congress what to do, but it can put pressure on the library and Congress to change the law.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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