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Unlocking Smarthphones Now Illegal

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

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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.