Unlocking smartphones now illegal in US

Save Story
Leer en español

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

WASHINGTON — Smartphone consumers might have trouble moving from carrier to carrier while trying to keep the same phone, thanks to a recent adjustment to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

A consumer's right to unlock a smartphone was a DMCA exemption until Jan. 26, when new regulations went into effect. Smartphone buyers can no longer legally unlock a phone purchased from one carrier then use it for a different carrier, unless they have permission.

For the commitment-phobic consumer who doesn't like to be tied down to one carrier for too long, the regulation could disrupt a way of life. But for the majority of consumers, it won't have much of an effect.

Historically, carriers haven't gone after individuals for unlocking phones, but they have sued illicit businesses who bought phones by the thousands, unlocked them and shipped them overseas, according to Wired.

"The carriers' position has always been, it's never been about individual consumers," said James Baldinger, a lawyer for TracFone and other carriers, in an interview with Wired. "They are concerned about traffickers that steal subsidies and in the end increase the cost of wireless consumers across the United States."

That's not the opinion of copyright lawyer Mitch Stoltz, however. In the same Wired article, Stoltz expressed his concern with the new regulations and said there's nothing preventing carriers from going after the individuals now.

"People will no longer have this solid shield created by the Copyright Office in the event they do get sued over this," he said.

Consumers can still buy phones in an unlocked state, which is coincidentally one of reasons the Library of Congress, which handles DMCA rulemaking, supported this change. In October, the Library of Congress issued final rule in which it states there are many unlocked phone options available to customers.

They are concerned about traffickers that steal subsidies and in the end increase the cost of wireless consumers across the United States.

–James Baldinger, lawyer for TracFone and other carriers

"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 phone," the document reads.

That means the law will not outlaw unlocked phones entirely — only those unlocked without a carrier's permission. AT&T, among other carriers, will unlock a phone once a person is out of contract. Verizon's iPhone 5 comes unlocked, and some phones can be purchased unlocked at full price directly from the carrier.

Carriers such as T-Mobile, which have supported "bring your own phone" programs in the past, may choose to continue them, but include a warning that phones should only be unlocked with a carrier's permission.

The news has left many wondering who will be imposing the new regulations and how effective the effort will be, but CNET speculates it will be the carriers enforcing the new regulations.

"Before this point, they could send you stern emails, but now they'll be able to send even more stern e-mails with the weight of federal regulations behind them," wrote Eric Mack.

Contributing: Stephanie Grimes

Email: caorton@ksl.com

Related links

Related stories

Most recent Politics stories

Related topics

Cait Orton


    Get informative articles and interesting stories delivered to your inbox weekly. Subscribe to the KSL.com Trending 5.
    By subscribing, you acknowledge and agree to KSL.com's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

    KSL Weather Forecast