Congress Makes It Illegal To Unlock Smartphones
January 25, 2013

Congress Makes It Illegal To Unlock Smartphones Starting Tomorrow

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

Owning a smartphone is great fun, but owning an unlocked smartphone is even better. Without ties to a specific carrier, users can take their devices overseas and have their choice of service providers. When at home in the States, these users can walk tall, knowing that no carrier has absolute control over their device. And while they may never have cause to exercise the right to leave a carrier, it´s always nice knowing the option is there.

A new federal mandate is about to remove this free and easy feeling when a new rule goes into effect this Saturday. The Library of Congress ruled late last October that it shall be illegal to unlock a cellular device without the permission of the carrier who locked it in the first place.

The Library of Congress handles all the rules for the odious Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) and has deemed it inappropriate for users to unlock themselves from the chains of the carriers.

The new rule states: “The marketplace has evolved such that there is now a wide array of unlocked phone options available to consumers. While it is true that not every wireless device is available unlocked, and wireless carriers' unlocking polices are not free from all restrictions, the record clearly demonstrates that there is a wide range of alternatives from which consumers may choose in order to obtain an unlocked wireless phone.”

This new rule does not necessarily make it illegal to have and own an unlocked phone, but it does make it illegal to use another service to have your device unlocked. Going forward, customers who want an unlocked device must get it directly from the carrier or with the carrier´s express permission. For instance, Apple began selling unlocked GSM versions of their popular iPhone late last November. These phones are sold with the permission of the respective carriers like AT&T and will remain legal in the eyes of the Library of Congress.

This law has purportedly been passed to ensure that the carriers who provided these devices with a steep subsidized discount are able to keep customers on their network, thereby receiving these discounts via monthly subscriptions. When a user buys an expensive iPhone with a subsidy and then leaves the carrier, that carrier is left to foot the rest of the bill.

When this law was passed in October, the Library of Congress issued a 90-day grace period to unlock devices. That 90-day period ends on Saturday.

As you might expect, some cell phone owners are none too pleased with this development and have taken to the White House´s petitioning system to have the law overturned.

"As of January 26, consumers will no longer be able unlock their phones for use on a different network without carrier permission, even after their contract has expired," reads the online petition, which at the time of this writing has received 4,315 votes of the necessary 100,000.

"Consumers will be forced to pay exorbitant roaming fees to make calls while traveling abroad. It reduces consumer choice, and decreases the resale value of devices that consumers have paid for in full."

Unless this petition can get another 95,000 votes or so by the end of the day, those who want to take advantage of an unlocked phone have but a few remaining hours to free their phones.