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.


The Librarian's decision is not a casual or short read. In its writing, the Librarian weighs the arguments of consumers' groups, digital rights advocates, and generally smaller and pre-paid carriers that would benefit from unlocking against a trade group that represents most major cellular carriers. On the pro-unlocking side:

Proponents noted that “huge numbers” of people have already unlocked their phones under the 2006 and 2010 exemptions and claimed 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.” Although proponents acknowledged that unlocked mobile devices are widely available for purchase, they contended that an exemption is still warranted because some devices sold by carriers are permanently locked and because unlocking policies contain restrictions and may not apply to all of a carrier's devices.

On the cellular side:

CTIA explained that the practice of locking cell phones is an essential part of the wireless industry's predominant business model, which involves 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. CTIA alleged that the industry has been plagued by “large scale phone trafficking operations” that buy large quantities of pre-paid phones, unlock them, and resell them in foreign markets where carriers do not subsidize handsets.

So the Librarian decided in October 2012 to no longer provide a safe space for third-party phone unlocking tools for phones purchased as new. A 90-day window was provided, so those who bought a new phone could still unlock it however they would like, legally. That window is closed on Jan. 26.

You may be able to get your carrier to unlock your phone, either after a 90-day period or when your contract is up. You might discover the pathways to unlocked phones, already well tread by those who broke their glass-backed iPhone 4 or 4S. Or you might just decide that it's not worth the hassle and just ask your smartphone carrier how much it costs to replace or upgrade your phone on their schedule, or to travel abroad at their pricing.

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