Since the establishment of We the People, the US government site dedicated to allowing citizens to petition the government to respond to their concerns, the concept has been engulfed by follies, giggles, and sour grapes. It has not been effective in getting any real changes made in government and at times it has been more of a comical retreat as well as a platform where the opinions of the White House can be spread through “replies” that were already a part of public record. Today, we saw something different, something better. Today, the system might actually have worked as promised.
A petition titled “Make Unlocking Cell Phones Legal” took in 114K digital signatures, prompting a response from the White House. Those who signed the petition weren’t disappointed as the administration, the FCC (.pdf), and the Library of Congress all replied. The White House’s response was extremely supportive, the LOC’s response was pointing out that technically they were in the right even if they were wrong, and the FCC said they agreed that it needed to be looked at more closely. Not bad for a citizen action.
The petition asked for it to be made legal for people who had purchased a phone and completed their contract to unlock it for use with other providers. This would make innovations, consumer freedoms, and reselling of the purchased product easier, the petition argued. The White House agreed across the board.
Now, if this actually turns into reality, it will be the first true action based upon a petition on the site. It will represent a shift towards the digital age that the rest of the country has been in for a while but that Washington DC has avoided. It will mark a path through which technology within this republic can actually flourish and make an impact. Some would argue that this was inevitable, that traditional channels would have yielded the same results or that the administration was leaning in this direction all along. It doesn’t matter. This is technology working on behalf of the people regarding action by the government. It’s significant.
According to the White House’s response:
“The Obama Administration would support a range of approaches to addressing this issue, including narrow legislative fixes in the telecommunications space that make it clear: neither criminal law nor technological locks should prevent consumers from switching carriers when they are no longer bound by a service agreement or other obligation.”
The site has, in the past, been used as an additional sounding board for the administration. They have been light on making a substantial statement about anything that did not align with their own stated goals. For example, there was no need for a petition about reducing gun violence. The administration has been saying the same thing for a while. They’ve also used the site to throw some humor and fun into the mix such as with their response about building a Death Star from Star Wars.
If the current laws are changed and cell phones are allowed to be unlocked, the site will have finally done its job. It will have taken a concern from the citizens, responded to it, and acted on the response. We’ll wait and see if it happens, but this shows a potential for a good day in technology for the republic.