Unauthorized unlocking of smartphones becomes illegal Saturday

The feds mandate fidelity between carriers and users: New rule under DMCA outlaws unlocking new handsets without carrier permission.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
3 min read
The U.S. federal government says that starting Saturday, new carrier-locked smartphones need to stay that way until the carrier says otherwise. Lockitron

For all you polyamorous types out there who don't like the long-term monogamy demanded by most American wireless carriers when it comes to smartphones, I have bad news.

Starting this Saturday, it becomes illegal in this great land to unlock a new smartphone without the permission of the carrier that locked it in the first place.

This all goes back to a final rule issued in late October by the Librarian of Congress (PDF) -- the Library of Congress handles the rulemaking for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which is the specific law we're talking about here. The rule says this, among other things:

...with respect to new wireless handsets, there are ample alternatives to circumvention. That is, 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.

In other words, the world's most powerful librarian finds that nobody is forcing us to buy locked phones, no matter how awesome the discounted price of a handset when you shackle yourself to a carrier for a few years. So if you want an unlocked phone, you've got to buy it that way, starting Saturday -- that's when a 90-day transition period to the new rule runs out.

So far, much of the response to the new rule taking effect has been confusion, with a number of people tweeting about the potential implications for the sales of unlocked phones on places like Amazon. Obviously, that will still continue, and international travelers will still be able to bring their unlocked phones into the U.S. without issue. The new no-no is buying a locked phone with a hefty carrier discount and then unlocking it on your own and without the carrier's permission.

This brought up another question for @worthoftheworld on Twitter:

So, how are they going to enforce this "unlocking phones is illegal" thing? Are they gonna track you down if you're using an unlocked device?

Well, probably, yes. Except that "they" will probably be your carrier, if they detect you've unlocked your phone. Before this point, they could just send you stern e-mails, but now they'll be able to send even more stern e-mails with the weight of federal regulations behind them.

The good news is that "legacy" phones, which the Library of Congress describes as "used (or perhaps unused) phones previously purchased or otherwise acquired by a consumer," are okay to unlock.

So if you really want a device that's as free-spirited as you are, best get moving. Only a few hours are left to use those digital picks without the prospect of facing the consequences.