Unlocking Smarthphones Now Illegal

Tech & Science

A change to copyright law places new rules on phone owners.

Due to an alteration to the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) which took effect yesterday, it is no longer legal for owners of iPhones, Android phones, or other smartphones to unlock their devices.

Unlocking, a process by which users remove barriers installed on their phones by carriers, is a task most commonly performed to use a phone on a service provider different from the one it was originally purchased from.

This is generally done so the users can keep their existing phones when moving to different networks in order to take advantage of lower monthly fees or better coverage; however it can also be used to bring more desirable phones to carriers who do not normally provide them. The iPhone 5, for example, can only be used on T-Mobile if purchased through another source and unlocked.

Proponents of the DMCA’s original form argue that “ending the exemption will lead to higher device prices for consumers, increased electronic waste, higher costs associated with switching service providers, and widespread mobile customer ‘lock-in,’ ” and that the modification is decidedly anti-consumer.  Without it, customers are forced to continue doing business with the carrier they originally purchased their phones from, or to discard their old phones thereby causing undue financial burden to the user and generating unnecessary e-waste.

Unsurprisingly, carriers are strongly in favor of the ban on user-initiated unlocking. The CTIA, a trade association which represents every major wireless service provider in the US, has stated the practice of locking cell phones is vital to business for carriers. “Subsidizing the cost of wireless handsets in exchange for a commitment from the customer that the phone will be used on that carrier’s service so that the subsidy can eventually be recouped by the carrier” allows phone companies to draw in clients with inexpensive upfront costs for high-end devices, while turning a profit over the two years those clients are usually contracted to stay with the company. The CTIA further contends that a law protecting consumers’ ability to unlock phones is unnecessary because “the largest nationwide carriers… have liberal, publicly available unlocking policies,” and unlocked phones are “freely available from third party providers – many at low prices.”

The newly modified DMCA does not, however, require service providers to maintain those “liberal, publicly available unlocking policies,” nor does it specify any particular legal ramification should a phone owner decide to unlock a phone without obtaining the original carrier’s consent. Presumably this means that any consequence for doing so would be a matter for civil court, but telecommunications companies have remained mum on just what they would do if they discovered a smartphone had been unlocked without their approval.

All that seems clear at this point is that legacy devices—phones purchased prior to January 26th—are exempt from the new rule. The true consequences of the law will likely not be seen until a phone company decides to try enforcing it.



Jess R. Jan 28th, 2013 10:28 AM

this is such utter trite. why cant i use my device i paid for the way i want to? people are so money hungry now theyll make anything illegal and sue just to pad their pockts.

Pat Jan 28th, 2013 10:28 AM


88 Jan 28th, 2013 11:12 AM

talk about infringing upon freedoms. 

Jesse Jan 28th, 2013 11:49 AM

All this wining about freedom and greed--what about the greed of stealing software from creators?

LIC Jan 28th, 2013 12:13 PM

What creators, Jesse? Verizon? AT&T? The only thing they created is the locking process. Apple, Microsoft, RIM, and Google are the software creators, and they gain no benefit from this.

Jess R. Jan 28th, 2013 12:25 PM

youre joking right? i pay for the device i can damn well use it the way i see fit, just like the internet. i am stealing from no one.

Josh Jan 29th, 2013 11:24 AM

LIC has it right on the nose; this is all the software developers' fault. Phone services have nothing to do with it.

Robert Redding Jan 30th, 2013 12:10 PM

Any info on what cell phone carriers are going to be doing this? My son unlocked his phone and I don't want to get in any trouble for it. Is this now and forward, or past unlocking as well?

Christian Abbatecola Jan 30th, 2013 01:23 PM

The change applies to all carriers, but none of them have announced how they intend to enforce it yet. Your son should be fine as long as he purchased the phone prior to this past Saturday,

Robert Redding Jan 31st, 2013 12:37 PM

Good to know, Christian, thanks!

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