5 Things You Should Know About Illegally Unlocking Your Phone - New York News

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5 Things To Know: Illegally Unlocking Your Phone

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Yesterday I went on a rant about the new law that went into effect on January 26th which makes it illegal for you to "carrier unlock" your cell phone without your carrier's permission. I read your comments on our Facebook page and saw that there was still some confusion about what exactly a "carrier unlock" was and how exactly this new law affects you beyond my musings in the rant I wrote. We'll tackle that below.

First things first, "carrier unlocking" a cell phone is different than something else you may be familiar with or have at least heard about… jailbreaking or rooting a phone. The former allows you to enter a special code into GSM cell phones like those sold by AT&T or T-Mobile which will allow you to then take the phone and use it on the GSM carrier of your choice, even if that carrier is in another country; Sprint and Verizon do have some "world phones" which operate on GSM as well. Jailbreaking or rooting a phone is an action which allows you to circumvent certain security the manufacturer puts in place via software, allowing you to unlock new features or add "unapproved" apps (also referred to as side loading).

This issue all began in 1998 when the DMCA, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was signed into law to deal with the issues surrounding digital copyright infringement. This includes intellectual property like that found on your smartphone. The Librarian of Congress, who is appointed rather than elected, is able to interpret how the DMCA should be applied to various items like cell phones because they have software on them which falls under copyright law. The Librarian determined that jailbreaking a cell phone was not illegal in 2010, but recently when looking at the issues inherent with carrier unlocking cell phones (also referred to as a SIM unlock), decided that this activity violates the DMCA and therefore is illegal.

What will this really change for you today? If you bought your phone before the 26th, nothing. You're grandfathered in and the law doesn't apply. After the 26th, not much according to some. As I stated in my previous article, I don't think that many people are actually unlocking cell phones and I've only come across a few who say they've asked for an unlock and the carrier was not necessarily eager to do so. To be blunt, they got the "run around" for a bit before finally getting the handset unlocked. Most carriers should allow you to unlock your phone if your account is in good standing, if you've been a customer for a good length of time, or if you tell them you're traveling outside the country and want to use a local SIM card from the country you will be visiting. Of concern here is this, now that unlocking without carrier permission is illegal, providers have the ammunition they need to force you to use their international rates when you travel outside the country instead of allowing you to use a cheaper, local SIM. This law prohibits you from going to a third-party company to unlock your phone if your carrier tells you they won't do it, so if that is really a concern for you, an iPhone 5 or Google's Nexus 4 are both top of the line phones which come straight from their manufacturers carrier unlocked.


Like I said, I read your reaction to this new law and the most common response has been, "But it's my phone! I paid for it and I can do whatever I want with it… I own it!" If you bought your phone at a discount because you signed on for a one or two-year contract, technically it isn't yours until you fulfill the terms and conditions of that contract. To put it another way, the total cost of your phone was subsidized by the carrier in exchange for you committing to keep your service with them for the term of the contract. It's like going to a car dealership and putting a $10,000 down on a $20,000  car, then financing the rest. Technically, the company that finances your car can require you to do certain things until you pay it off like have a certain level of car insurance. In addition, they hold the title until you pay the car off. Same thing with your cell phone.


And that's it! That's what the new ruling means for you. The bigger issue, to touch on my previous post, is that we didn't vote on this new law and we didn't elect the Librarian of Congress, so if this person makes decisions we deeply disagree with it isn't like we can vote him or her out of office. Not that enough of us vote in general elections to begin with, but that's a rant for another time. In case you're like me and wondering why the Librarian has this power, it was a provision of the DMCA that every three years the Librarian of Congress would look over the list of technologies (Digital Rights Management technology like that Apple uses to ensure you're not sharing your iTunes library with too many people or computers) that kept people from illegally infringing on copyrights and determine if there was anything on that list which actually kept people from being able to make non-infringing uses of copyrighted works- keeping in mind, again, that the software on your smartphone is indeed a "copyrighted work." To put it plainly: per the DMCA, the Librarian of Congress gets to look over the list of technology used to keep us from stealing music, movies, books and other media and determine if any of that technology is actually getting in the way of us enjoying any of those copyrighted works.

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