For the past week or so, the major buzz across the Internet has been about how it’s suddenly against the law to unlock your cell phone from whatever carrier it’s attached to before the contract runs out. There’s been a good amount of fear-mongering and ranting about the amount of corporate influence on American law. While I think much of the outcry has been justified, some of it hasn’t, and I’d like to take a careful look at what this announcement is and is not, and what it will mean for mobile phone users going forward.
First we need to define our terms. Just what is “unlocking” and how is it related to “jailbreaking” or “rooting”? “Unlocking” refers to using a code to remove a software or firmware lock in a mobile phone, allowing it to be used on more than one provider’s network. It has little to do with how the user interacts with the phone’s OS. “Jailbreaking” refers to using software or hardware exploits to gain root access to the operating system on iOS devices. “Rooting” is essentially the same process, except as practiced on Android devices. They’re only related insofar as the sorts of folks who are interested in jailbreaking or rooting devices are also often the same folks who want to unlock them from specific carriers.
So now that we know what we’re talking about, let’s specify what this law doesn’t do: it does not make jailbreaking or rooting illegal. Those processes are still exempted from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), as they have been since the Electronic Freedom Foundation won said exemptions in July 2010. However, the US Copyright Office and the Librarian of Congress began reviewing those exemptions (and others) last October, and decided that the original exemption for unlocking phones was no longer necessary, given how much easier it is for consumers to either purchase unlocked devices in the first place, or just have their carriers unlock their phones for them. (Having worked for several mobile phone carriers, I can tell you that one of the first things they teach you is how to tell customers that “we’re sorry, we won’t unlock your phone; so sorry for the inconvenience…thanks and have a nice day!”)
Once the Copyright Office and Librarian of Congress arrived at this decision, they granted a 90-day grace period for users to get their phones unlocked. That time ran out on Saturday. So, what this means as of now is that only “legacy” phones are still eligible to be unlocked with no penalty. Newly-minted phones, not so much. After all, mobile providers are selling these phones (that are really miniature computers) for a ridiculously subsidized fee, knowing that they’ll recoup their money over the life of a 2-year contract. If consumers were able to unlock their phones, why would they be motivated to stay with a carrier if they didn’t want to?
You’re probably not going to have Johnny Law knocking on your door if you do decide to unlock your phone before your contract runs out with your carrier. However, you may have a little harder time finding a third-party business to help you with that unlock. Those third-party businesses could also face civil and criminal penalties of anywhere from $200 to $500,000 for unlocking phones. It all comes down to whether carriers intend to try to root out phones with unsanctioned unlocks – and if they do so, how aggressively. We’ll be watching, because it’s our money too.