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Unlocking Your Phone Is Now Illegal

Did you know that unlocking your phone is now illegal in the United States? According to the U.S. Copyright Office and Library of Congress, the exception they permitted for unlocking cell phones has now expired. What is unlocking? Why would you want to unlock a phone? Why is it illegal if you own the phone?

Let’s start by explaining what it meas to unlock a phone. Cell phones come preprogrammed by the carrier to only work with that carrier’s network. The reason for locking devices is most people purchase phones at a substantial discount in exchange for a contract which locks them into using that phone with a particular carrier. For example, Verizon advertises the iPhone 5 starting at $199.99 with a contract, but the unlocked version of the phone starts at $742 on Amazon.com. The contract alone, the phone companies argue, would not be to prevent people from taking the discount and then switching to another carrier. Almost all phones in the US come with software preventing them from working on a compatible competitor’s network. Unlocking a phone allows the phone to be used on any network the phone’s radio chips are compatible with.

There are many reasons you might want to unlock your phone. One reason cellular carriers cite is that you could purchase a phone for a steep discount, not pay the bill and use the phone instead on a competitor’s prepaid network. Then the phone company would be stuck with the bill for a very expensive phone. You may also want to unlock a phone to use it after your contract has expired on a competitor’s network. You might even want to unlock a phone to use it in an international location where your carrier either charges very high roaming rates or does not provide service.

Why is it illegal if you own the phone? Well that’s the really interesting thing, because according to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, the law that makes this activity illegal, unlocking the phone itself is not illegal. Circumventing the encryption used to lock the phone is the illegal act. But since you can’t unlock a phone without circumventing the encryption, it makes the entire activity illegal. The U.S. Copyright Office and Library of Congress  issued an exemption for phone unlocking, but this exception was not renewed. As of January 26, 2013 it is illegal to unlock your phone.

In my personal opinion, this is a very questionable use of a law designed to prevent piracy and the exemption should be reinstated or the law rewritten to better reflect the “intent” of law which was to prevent movie and software online piracy. You can read the full statement by the U.S. Copyright Office by clicking here [1].