Unlocking Smartphones Rendered Illegal by Librarian's Baffling Decision

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-01-27 Print this article Print

What this really means boils down to two things. It puts a crimp in the operations of commercial unlocking operations that buy large quantities of no-contract phones, unlock them and then sell them (usually outside the United States) as unlocked phones. It also puts somewhat of a crimp in T-Mobile’s efforts to get AT&T customers to switch. After all, once an AT&T customer’s contract has expired, AT&T has said it will unlock their phones.

This also apparently means that you can’t unlock tablets just as you can’t jailbreak them, however, the biggest population of tablets is iPads, and they’re already unlocked. Even the iPads that are sold by AT&T, Verizon and Sprint that have SIM cards (which are required for LTE) aren’t locked. So if you want to put in a foreign SIM when you travel, you can.

So why has the Librarian of Congress made this rather inconsistent ruling on unlocked phones? The way the LoC reads the DMCA, unlocking the phone circumvents the technological protection of the software in the device. How this came to be interpreted this way is a mystery, since the only purpose for unlocking a phone is to change carriers, not to steal the software.

What’s even more of a mystery, given the reasoning of the LoC is that jail breaking is OK, even though that effectively unlocks the phone. But perhaps the most mysterious of all is how the DMCA came to be applied to phone unlocking. Or at least it’s a mystery until you realize that the major carriers have been lobbying the Librarian of Congress for years.

The bottom line for all of this is that basically very little has changed for individual owners of mobile phones. These individual owners already depended on their carrier’s help in unlocking or they bought unlocked phones. Even in cases where a person has unlocked a phone without the carrier’s permission, nothing has happened. There’s no reported instance in which a carrier has sued a customer for unlocking a phone.

But this does illustrate how a vast, complex bill such as the DMCA can have an impact on tech users far beyond anything that was ever intended. And unfortunately, because the DMCA is so vast and complex, it’s a safe bet that wireless companies will be working to think up new ways to make your use of the devices you buy more annoying. In the meantime, if you want your phone unlocked, go for it. Just be aware that somewhere in Washington, D.C., there’s a librarian who will cast a disapproving eye in your direction.


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