Petition against criminal penalties for unlocking cellphones gathers steam, as ‘Father of Internet’ lends support

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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Vint Cerf, commonly called the “Father of the Internet,” is throwing his support behind an effort to make unlocking cellphones legal again.

On January 26, the grace period ended on an October 2012 ruling instituted by the Librarian of Congress, which effectively made it illegal for smartphone owners to unlock on-contract devices purchased after that date and transfer them to a new mobile carrier.

The act of unlocking on-contract cellphones was previously exempt from criminal penalty under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), but now first-time offenders face a fine of up to $500,000, five years in jail, or both. Repeat offenders could face double the penalty.

A White House petition created on January 24 calling for a reversal of the decision has since gained more than 81,000 signatures – nearly 18,000 signatures shy of the 100,000 signatures required to trigger an official White House response.

“We ask that the White House ask the Librarian of Congress to rescind this decision, and failing that, champion a bill that makes unlocking permanently legal,” says the petition, created by OpenSignal founder Sina Khanifar.

The deadline to reach the goal is Friday.

Cerf, whose long list of accomplishments includes a recent presidential appointment to the National Science Board, published the link to his Twitter and Facebook accounts on Monday afternoon.

Derek Khanna, technology activist and former Hill staffer for the Republican Study Committee, told The Daily Caller that he has been spearheading much of the effort to bring awareness to the petition, and said that was excited to have Cerf’s support and hoped it would bring greater visibility to the issue.

Khanna also hopes that this petition will show others that young conservatives and Republicans understand technology, and how law is impacting markets and innovation.

Calling the ruling “a clear example of crony capitalism,” he said, “While the technologies involved here may seem novel – cellphone unlocking – the arguments for this issue are not new ones for the Republican Party.”

“This is a clear example of an invasion of individual property rights, over-criminalization at the federal level, and government intervention into the private sector,” said Khanna.

Khanna continued in an email statement to TheDC, “As for property rights, the operative question is do you own your own phone?”

“This is something that clearly should not be a federal crime,” he said. “And this ruling creating higher barriers to entry and hinders competition in the free market.”

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Josh Peterson