Unlocking Your Mobile Phone Is No Longer Legal

by DAVID KRAVETS, Wired.com  |  published on January 27, 2013

mobile phone

Mobile phones purchased beginning Saturday can no longer be legally unlocked by U.S. consumers to enable them to work on different networks.

The reason, as we reported three months ago, was that the U.S. Copyright Office is no longer granting unlocking an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The DMCA makes it illegal to “circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access” to copyrighted material, in this case software embedded in phones that controls carrier access.

But in all practicality, nothing will really change for consumers. Before unlocking was first exempted in 2006 and again in 2010, the carriers never sued individuals for unlocking their own phones, and they don’t plan to. And even when unlocking was exempted and allowed, the carriers and phone makers were successfully suing illicit businesses that bought throw-away phones by the thousands, unlocked them, and shipped them overseas.

Still, the changeover worries Mitch Stoltz, a copyright lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That’s because now there’s nothing preventing the carriers from suing individuals and abandoning the practice of unlocking mobile phones for their customers.

“People will no longer have this solid shield created by the Copyright Office in the event they do get sued over this,” Stoltz said in a telephone interview.

The carriers, however, last year told the Copyright Office, which every three years reexamines exemptions to the DMCA, that it did not oppose individuals unlocking their phones. Many carriers provide the service today to individuals, and that won’t change.

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