Why unlocking your phone without permission will be illegal (and why you should care)

Phone unlocking without a carrier's consent will be illegal after Saturday. Seriously.


Original photo by sysop1021 on Flickr

After this upcoming weekend, you have to ask your phone company if you want to use the phone you (kind of) bought from them on any other carrier's network. You used to be able to ask for, or purchase, or hack your way to an "unlocked" phone, but that will be illegal after Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013. The Librarian of Congress believes cellphone companies are doing a good enough job of fostering competition in their market, so the era of third-party unlocking is coming to a close.

Back in October 2012, the Librarian of Congress was asked by the Register of Copyrights to examine the exemptions made for certain classes of work under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA. I know what you may be thinking. "This Librarian, and this Register—do they live in giant vine-strewn towers? Do these heroes have any special powers if they leave Washington?" That is a good question, but first we must address other things.

[ See also: The Android lag fix that really wasn't and 3 things Android’s keyboard needs to fix ]

The DMCA is an oft-referenced 1998 bill that, while tightening and specifying certain online and digital copyright laws, also allows for certain exceptions. It is the bill that allows YouTube and other sites to avoid never-ending lawsuits over copyright infringement, so long as they take down infringing materials once notified. The DMCA also makes it illegal to circumvent encryption and protection measures on copyright-protected materials—with exceptions.

In October 2012, that Librarian of Congress, tasked with regularly reviewing and determining whether the exceptions to the DMCA are still valid, changed course from previous decisions in 2006 and 2010 and determined that, in short, there exists enough unlocked phones, carrier unlocking options, and other options for consumers, such that unsanctioned unlocking of cellphones no longer needed to be a protected right.

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