Unlocking Your Cell Phone Is Still Illegal, But Probably Not For Long

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Unlocking your smart phone to run on a different carrier, without your carrier’s permission. It seems completely innocuous, right? Something you’d do with a spare bit of time on your weekend just to see if you could.

Surprise! It’s illegal. And we’re not talking jay-walking-when-no-one-is-looking illegal, either —thanks to some crazy ass interpretations of the DMCA, it’s a quote-unquote crime punishable by up to 5 years in jail.

Thankfully, that’s changing. The legality of unlocking has flip-flopped many a time over the past 15 years, but it’s likely about to go back to being legal.

A few weeks ago, the Senate passed the “Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition” act that moved to make unlocking legal again. This morning, Congress unanimously approved it.

Now the only thing left is for the President to put his stamp of approval on it — and given that the administration has publicly supported the act, that’ll hopefully happen pretty quickly.

The history of unlocking so far:

  • In 1998, Congress passed the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Section 1201 states that “No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title”, meant to make it illegal to circumvent anti-piracy mechanisms. In other words, they didn’t want you hacking up a VCR to be able to copy your VHS copy of Titanic.
  • Cell phone manufacturers, carriers, and carrier lobbyist groups took this to include their wares, as well — and for the next few years, used it to send out DMCA notices to shut down sites and services that helped people unlock their phones.
  • In 2006, the U.S Copyright office said “wait, wait, wait — that’s not how it’s supposed to work” and granted an exemption that made unlocking officially okay. Alas, these exemptions are re-reviewed every three years, and…
  • At the end of 2012, the exemption was allowed to expire, and unlocking was illegal again

Once this bill is signed, it’ll once again go back to being legal… for now. Congress is scheduled to re-evaluate the bill every 3 years, so it could flip right back to illegal before too long.

Someone needs to set up a Twitter account for whether or not you can currently go to jail for unlocking a friggin’ cell phone.

[Photo by Simon Yeo, used under CreativeCommons]