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Here's How Cell Phone Unlocking Became Legal

Summary: 
On Friday, August 1, President Obama signed a bill into law that again made it legal for consumers to unlock their cell phones. It marked the very first time a We the People petition led to a legislative fix.

On Friday, August 1, President Obama signed a bill into law that again made it legal for consumers to unlock their cell phones in order to take them to a carrier that best suits their needs. It marked the very first time a We the People petition led to a legislative fix.

It's a win for consumers, and an important milestone for We the People -- which has generated more than 15 million users and 22 million signatures on over 350,000 petitions since it started in 2011.

President Barack Obama signs S. 517, Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act

President Barack Obama signs S. 517, Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, in the Oval Office, Aug. 1, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Here's how it happened:

In January of 2013, internet activist Sina Khanifar started a We the People petition that asked the government to make cell phone unlocking legal.

The petition came in the wake of a decision by the Library of Congress that ended an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and made it illegal for consumers to unlock their cell phones -- a process that allows a phone to be used on any compatible network.

Over the next 30 days, 114,000 people from across the country signed the petition -- crossing the signature threshold needed for an official White House response.

Folks here at the White House leapt into action. The White House policy team convened more than a half-dozen agencies and offices' senior officials to ask a simple question: How can we move this issue forward? After careful deliberation, it was clear to us: The Administration couldn’t agree more with petitioners, and we came out in strong support of again making it legal for consumers to unlock their devices.

But we didn’t just agree; we offered a template for how to make it a reality. Our response laid out steps that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), wireless carriers, and Congress could take to make sure copyright law didn't stand in the way of consumer choice. And over the following weeks and months, we worked with the FCC and wireless carriers to reach voluntary agreements to provide consumers with additional flexibility. That captured national attention, including support from national editorial pages.

All that helped motivate Congress to take action, and heed the call in a bipartisan way. Sen. Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, partnered with the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee to promptly introduce joint legislation that would restore the DMCA exemption. That legislation passed both Chambers unanimously this past month in the form of the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act.

It's that legislation that President Obama signed earlier this month. And just last week, we held a conference call with hundreds of petition signers to help explain what the legislation does -- and to talk about the important part every one of those 114,000 signers played.

So what's next for We the People? This petition was a great case of the amazing online organizing we've seen by petition creators, but we're working to make it even easier for creators to organize around their petitions.

That's why we've created a simplified signing process that removes the need to create an account just to sign a petition -- and why we've been hard at work on a Write API that will eventually allow people to sign petitions using new technologies, and on sites other than WhiteHouse.gov.


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