The White House responded to the petition, saying the administration agreed that "consumers should be able to unlock their cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties."
Suddenly, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were racing to introduce their own bills to legalize cell-phone unlocking. A bill from Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, would have amended the underlying copyright law to make it permanently legal to unlock cell phones and other devices.
The Law Is Only a Temporary Fix
Congress ultimately opted for a narrower approach.
The bill that President Obama is about to sign only overturns the Copyright Office's 2012 ruling on cell-phone unlocking. The office is expected to begin the review again later this year and issue new rules sometime next year.
Although it's unlikely, there's nothing in the bill to stop the Copyright Office from reinstating the ban.
An act of Congress is a forceful statement to the Copyright Office, but the White House's original response to the online petition more than a year ago alone would have put serious pressure on the office to reverse itself in its next rules.
Carriers Will Already Unlock Phones
After the controversy exploded, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler warned cell-phone carriers that he would consider enacting new regulations unless the companies adopted an unlocking policy.
The cellular carriers then all agreed to a code of conduct promising to unlock their customers' phones after their contracts had expired. The carriers also agreed to unlock prepaid phones one year after activation.
Wheeler issued a statement at the time applauding the carriers for agreeing to a "solution" to the problem. He also promised tough oversight to ensure the carriers stuck to their promise.
You Can't Even Switch Between All Carriers
Cell-phone unlocking may become legal, but that doesn't mean it'll always be possible to switch carriers.
Some carriers rely on different technologies than others, meaning that some phones will only work on certain networks. So, an AT&T customer who completes her contact and wants to switch to Sprint might have to buy a new phone no matter what.
"Unlocked phones are not the same as interoperable phones, and it would be a mistake to conflate the two," Michael Altschul, the general counsel for cell-phone lobbying group CTIA, testified during a House hearing last year.
Supporters of the bill argue that those obstacles are becoming less and less relevant due to technological advances. Soon, new phones may be able to work on all networks.
So What Was the Point?
Christopher Lewis, a lobbyist for consumer group Public Knowledge, acknowledged that the bill is "really, really narrowly focused."
Groups like Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation had lobbied for broader legislation to reform copyright law and prevent future fights over unlocking devices. But Lewis said it was important to compromise to reverse the Copyright Office's ruling as quickly as possible.