Thursday, March 21, 2013

Unlocking mobile devices in the United States


In the past, if you didn’t like your cell phone provider, you could simply unlock your phone and switch to another. Unlocking a cell phone was as simple as taking it to a store, paying a few bucks and waiting a few minutes. But as of Saturday, January 26th, it won’t be that easy.

On January 26th, unlocking cell phones in the United States became illegal. It will be completely against the law.

If you aren't familiar with unlocking phones, it’s a very common thing done to allow a phone to work on different carrier’s networks that use the same wireless standard. It’s very popular for people that travel internationally often, since it allows the phones to work on networks in different countries.

Back in October, the Librarian of Congress decided that unlocking a cell phone is illegal. The librarian cited an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and determined that there would be a ninety-day grace period between the ruling and when the law would go into effect. That ninety-day grace period is just about up.

There are some interesting exemptions to the law. For example, if you have a contract with AT&T and the contract expires, AT&T can legally unlock your cell phone for you. You can also buy an iPhone direct from Apple unlocked, although the price tag is pretty hefty. The iPhone on Verizon comes unlocked straight out of the box. These will still be legal. You’ll also still be able to access wireless Internet on the east coast with Clear Internet Philadelphia.

It’s interesting to see what this might do to the cell phone world. T-Mobile, for example, runs ad campaigns that promote switching carriers by bringing in your unlocked phone.



Many are questioning whether the Librarian of Congress even has the authority to determine if this is legal or not. Electronic freedom advocacy groups believe that this is a ruling that must be left up to the courts, and it shouldn’t be related to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

In the past, it was still only legal to unlock your phone if you did it through your carrier that you were on contract with. You had to have permission; beginning Saturday, you won’t be able to unlock your phone whatsoever.

This is raising interesting concerns for many people who claim that you should be able to do whatever you want with your cell phone. It’s a similar issue to what was going on a few years ago with jailbreaking, when Apple and other smart phone makers would brick phones that were hacked. Owners of the phones believed they had every right to do whatever they wanted with the phones, while the makers believed that they didn’t since they were using their software.

In 2010, the U.S. Copyright Office ruled that mobile devices are exempt from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which made it easier and safer to jailbreak your device. It will be interesting to see if there is any resistance to the unlocking ban, and if those pushing to reverse the decision site that 2010 ruling.

Image credit: teachtechno.com

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