You might not have realized this, but in 2012, US Copyright Office let an exception to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) expire that suddenly made it illegal to unlock a cellphone you owned, for the purposes of using it with a different carrier. Passed in 1998, the DMCA covers many areas of modern technology, but the exception essentially allowed consumers to unlock phones like the Apple iPhone themselves, as opposed to purchasing a (much more expensive) unlocked phone or asking/paying the carrier to unlock the phone for you after you’ve paid for the phone through a subsidized contract. Though the exception lapsed late last year, the Whitehouse and the FCC have both issued statements urging Congress to legalize unlocking.
What this means for you:
In the US, unlocking your smartphone doesn’t have quite the same value as it does in other parts of the world, primarily because the two largest carriers operate networks that use two different technologies that are not found in any one phone. For example, if you had an AT&T iPhone, you can’t unlock it and move to Verizon, because the actual hardware will only work on GSM networks (Verizon is a CDMA-based network) but you could use it on T-Mobile’s network. The carriers aren’t really interested in seeing the exception renewed, primarily because it narrow’s consumer choice and “locks” unknowning customer with technology that, while simple to crack, is technically illegal to actually do without the carrier’s permission.
The issue rarely surfaces for most consumers anyways, as the carriers offer “free” or heavily discounted phones (with a multi-year contract, of course!) to “new” customers, so most opt to get something shiny and new, versus unlocking their 2-year old phone. The issue here is really more centered around protection of consumer rights and the fact that if you own something, you should be able to do whatever you want with it as long as it isn’t impacting the well-being of others. Unfortunately, the Whitehouse and the FCC can’t do anything about the DMCA or renewing the exception because the Copyright Office is governed by Congress. And we all know how productive they’ve been lately.
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