Say Goodbye to Legal Unlocking

Come Saturday, it will be illegal to unlock your cellphone in the United States without the carrier’s permission.

written by Andrew Goldberg

Time is running out. Last October, the Librarian of Congress—the established arbitrator of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ’s execution—issued a temporary exemption to legislation that outlaws the unlocking of cell phones. The exemption allows for phones owned or purchased before January 26, 2013 (that’s tomorrow!) to be legally unlocked by the user. After the deadline, users will have to request permission from their carriers to unlock handsets, or be in violation of a federal law.

Before we get into the implications of the law, here’s a quick lesson on terminology: unlocking your cell phone disables the SIM lock that limits your phone to operating on a specific network provider. With few exceptions (such as an iPhone 5 from Verizon and Google’s Nexus 4), most cell phones come locked so that they can only operate with a single service provider. Unlocking your phone allows you to take it to a new provider. It’s especially useful for international travelers, who need to use their phones overseas. Unlocking can be accomplished in several different ways, with or without the knowledge and consent of the carrier.

A common method for unlocking smartphones requires jailbreaking . for iPhones, or rooting on Android devices. This is a means of removing the manufacturer’s limitations on software to allow the end user more options in what they can run on their device. On Apple devices, this generally means sideloading third-party apps not available in the App Store (something already possible with Android devices), or apps that require more access to the phone’s hardware systems. While potentially warranty-voiding, jailbreaking is a completely legal exemption under the DMCA, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the nonprofit advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). (We interviewed EFF’s Andrew Huang just a year ago about this very precept).

So, what does all of this mean to our community? One of the tenets of our Self-Repair Manifesto is that “if you can’t fix it, you don’t own it.” For many users, unlocking a phone is a necessary fix, opening up a feature and freedom that people need to effectively use their devices. The Copyright Office’s decision to outlaw this right of ownership hurts users, and further empowers carriers to trap consumers. The expiration of this exemption isn’t news, but now that its end is near, today is your last chance to unlock your phones and exercise some freedom.

Tips for unlocking your phone before the deadline:

  • Apple hosts a resource outlining the general procedure for unlocking your iPhone.
  • For an AT&T phone with a completed contract term, visit this page.
  • A GEVEY SIM card will unlock your iPhone at the hardware level, without jailbreaking.
  • Check out How Stuff Works: How to Jailbreak an iPhone .
  • For an Android device, search for your device on for rooting and unlocking instructions.
January 25, 2013 written by Andrew Goldberg in Activism. Copyright. Hacking

Andrew is a technical writer and teardown engineer at iFixit.

12 Comments on “ Say Goodbye to Legal Unlocking ”

BOYCOTT TIME… I guess if they dont want to sell any phone the only way is show them how they like it if they cannot sell any phones. Betcha that law wont last long if they dont sell any phones 🙂 as how can companies continue to operate if consumers wont buy there products…

there must be a site to register all authorized dealers

I purchased my Galaxy S2 a little over a year ago. Based on what you’ve written I will still be able to root it after tomorrow, unless the prohibition applies to all users regardless of when they bought the phone.

Besides, there’s more to changing carriers, at least in days past. Taking your EV-DO phone over to a TDMA network or using an 800MHz phone on a PCS network wouldn’t work unless it had multiple radios in it. These are not just black boxes ready for any possible application.

I guess that will be mitigated with LTE, but even there I suspect some compatibility problems between carriers. There’s a lot going on under the hood.

One important thing to note is that most carriers (all that I have personally dealt with) will unlock an out of contract phone. Also, in the case of iphones, units that are bought out of contract. Realistically, in most situations, it seems that this law will only really have an affect on those with phones still in contract.
In the defense of the carriers, they do try to regain some of the cost of the phone through the term of the contract, so maybe it would be best to look at contracted phones as their property until the end of the contract, or until that contract is bought out (early termination fee). This law potentially stops those that are content with their current phone from renewing their contract, receiving a reduced cost phone, unlocking the phone, and then selling it for a very substantial profit.
Now, with all that being said, I do not think it is really a good call to make unlocking illegal, and I do not agree that it is just. I am merely saying that it is best to look at it from both sides before calling a boycott or getting all worked up. Until the carriers actually come out and say “these phones are ours until your contract is over”, we should be able to do whatever we wish with them.

I don’t have a contract. The main reason I am considering unlocking/rooting my phone is so that i can load certain apps that will let me save to my external hard drive, since the internal drive sold with my phone is always at capacity and rejects my messages and all activity when it is full. Do I _want_ to root my phone? No. Must I root my phone? Yes. To Change carriers? No. Why? Because I have a product that I purchased from my carrier that doesn’t work for me. Should I be forced to purchase a new phone from them rather than unlocking the perfectly good phone that I have, just by doing one easy step? Will I change carriers? No. I like my carrier. They provide me with good coverage and service. I want to unlock my phone so that I _can_ stay with them. If I am forced to purchase a new phone, there is one available from a different carrier that I am going to buy. So, the effect of this law is that my current carrier will end up _losing_ my business, not retaining it. Just one more side to look at in side effects of this law.

DudleyB, you’re confused on what is becoming illegal here. Rooting and/or Jailbreaking is what allows you to “load certain apps…” not Unlocking. Unlocking allows you to utilize your device on a different carrier, as long as your cellular radio is compatible w/ their service. No worries on your end.

Illigal my ass…. Library of congress…. Who’s going to enforce it? Librarians or worse yet, congressmen are going to arrest you? Think people.

PEOPLE WILL STILL DO IT anyway even it’s illegal.
It is not possible to carriers to remotely check your device if it is jailbroken or rooted

This is absolutely absurd and faltering on so many levels.

Think of the generation of kids growing up with their iphones, lots who are probably minors getting iPhones and not realizing that you are actually labeled a criminal now in the governments mind because you’ve screwed with YOUR phones SOFTWARE. All the personal data one feeds into the iPhone has now been confiscated for further evaluations. WTF where does it stop? illegal iphones, give me a fkkn break! I don’t even live in the U.S.A. but if they did that here I would be fucking pissed. These billionaire cellphone companys arent losing shit. They just keep making more money, and more money. This is some weird manipulative government control shit. That is fucked up man.

So… is the “illegal” aspect while the phone is still being subsidized, that makes sense. You agreeed to pay a certain amount for a certain time frame and they agreeed to give it to you for a certain price.

After the contract is up, unless the contract says the phone is theirs, like a DVD belongs to whoever the fffk, and they’re leasing it to you….

wait are they leasing us phones now?

Im gonna stop leasing my cellphone and live in a tent. tin can and wire. FTW.

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