In the past, unlocking cell phones has allowed consumers to use their phone across carriers, as long as they use the same network technology. For example, if you were in France you could have an unlocked AT&T phone running on the T-Mobile network, as well as France’s network, because both networks use GSM. In fact, up until this point the U.S. Copyright Office and Library of Congress had an exemption for unlocking cell phones under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). But all that came to an end today, January 26, 2013. It is now officially illegal to unlock your own phone without the phone carrier’s permission.
The full document can be viewed here.
Will this law really stop people from unlocking their phones? Jay Zalowitz, a hacker (programmer) who unlocked his iPhone years ago says that, “I think hackers will always find a way to unlock phones, there is no doubt about that. But odds are this will stop stores selling unlocked phones to tourists.”
Not to be confusing, it is only when you buy a carrier’s specific phone, with a contract, that this law comes into play. Consumers can still buy unlocked phones that run across carriers, as both iPhone and Android have many models that do just that. Also, according to the rule change, people can still unlock phones bought prior to the new law.
On the positive side, making it illegal to unlock phones increases safety, as consumers won’t get viruses and malware resulting from hackers messing around with phone software. It also will make the stolen phone market less appealing because purchasing an unlocked phone might end up with the consumer in court.
On the negative side, making it illegal to unlock phones does more to help carriers than consumers. It helps carriers lock customers into phone plans, rendering phones virtually useless when consumers try to switch to another carrier. It also creates a lot of hassle for consumers who travel outside the United States, as locked cell phones cannot use foreign carrier systems (There goes that trip to France).
At the end of the day, making it illegal to unlock a cell phone may be a popular decision. There is already a petition on the White House’s website. If you are a part of that camp, and want to “Make Unlocking Cell Phones Legal”, take a moment to sign the petition.