Starting Saturday, it may be illegal for you to unlock your smartphone in the US

When you buy a smartphone, you usually have to stick with your wireless carrier for the life of that phone. Unlocking the smartphone so it can be used by other wireless carriers has always been frowned upon by those wireless companies in the US. Starting on Saturday, it will also be against the law.

As Cnet.com reports, a new rule in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that was first approved in October will now make it illegal for people who own a locked smartphone to make it unlocked, unless they get permission to do so with their wireless provider.

The new DMCA rule basically says that consumers have a "wide range of alternatives" in terms of buying a phone that's already unlocked.  US citizens have the choice to buy a smartphone that's unlocked already or buy one that is locked to a certain carrier. If they choose the latter, they won't be able to later unlock that phone on their own starting tomorrow.

There is a small exception. If you buy a phone, used or unused, that was previously bought by someone else, you will have the right to unlock that phone from the wireless carrier on your own. International visitors to the US are also free to bring their unlocked smartphones for use in the country.

There's no word yet on what kinds of punishment will be given out if you are caught unlocking a smartphone starting on Saturday.

Source: Cnet.com
Smartphone image via Shutterstock

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I have an awesome setup. I pay 5.99 a month to keep my cell alive (in service) 200 talk mins, but I never touch those 200 minutes because I have a Vonage extension on that phone. It bypasses the phone's talk time and instead routs directly to vonage as a carrier. Unlimited data and web is included with the 5.99 plan.

T-Mobile has Value Plans where you pay unsubsidized prices for the phone, but are still locked in for 2 years. I've already paid for the phone, I'm doing what I want, contract or not.

pretty much strengthen the believe that DMCA true purpose is:
"To Proctects Companies's Profits against various Profits Infringments"
under disguises of combating:
- Copyright infringment
- Intelectual Property infringment
- Patent Infringment
- Distribution Ingfriment
- First hand sales doctrine
- ... etc ... etc

Simple, people in the U.S just have to buy unlocked international smartphones instead if those crapware bundled carrier devices. Seriously, why can't they and carriers use standard devices like the rest of the world.. Oh wait, they think they too special with their locked devices having locked bootloaders, they also probably enjoy their late updates too. Funny how there are so many SIII versions for their xyz carriers when the rest of the world have the i9300/i9305 which are totally unlocked.

The loophole is if the phone was purchased before the deadline of 1/26/13 it is legal, after that time period then it is illegal.

thejohnnyq said,
The loophole is if the phone was purchased before the deadline of 1/26/13 it is legal, after that time period then it is illegal.

If you consider most carriers already have provisions in their TOS regarding unlocking their phones and provisioning unlocked phones onto their networks, this legislation could at best be a moot point. The carriers are under no legal obligation to permit an unlocked device on their network.

they should have stated that by unlocking it, the weight would go up. that would keep most from even thinking about it

Hope that AT&T keep to their policy of unlocking iPhones after 2-year contract is up. That's a really awesome deal to their customers and may actually pull me back to them.

I bought my iPhone 5 unlocked at Walmart . They are financing the phone for 26-months no-interest with a $25/month minimum.

More copyright extremism. To me, as long as you're not pirating and cracking or sucking up a lot of unauthorized tethering (basically screwing a company or developer over) you should own the device. But then again this is why I warn people of contracts, and now, I guess locked phones as well. It's like selling your soul to the telecom industry. No changing carriers, no phone uprades, and a limited warranty with a high hidden price tag. And what gets me is the government is worried about perfecting the DMCA when both sides need to be worried about the economy and the war in Afghanistan. I feel like I'm living in the decline of America. I'm a Democrat, but I am sick of almost every politician bending over to lobbying. Appearantly making the world's most overcomplicated and BS infested copyright industry even worse and hurting the consumer is more important than serious issues. And guess what? Issues such as piracy still exist.

Do they have a phone police that checks if your phone is unlocked? And what penalty would you get? And if on a contract you'd still have to pay even if you unlocked the phone.. Don't you? So this law is bs imho.

This actually makes me want to purchase a phone thats unlocked. Now if I could only get the expensive phones I get on contract, to last more than the contract, then I would wait until I had saved enough money to buy an unlocked version. Phone companies are already doing very well on shocking contracts they make us sign, considering the poor service they actually provide. Adding to it might just be the reason needed to change peoples buying habits.

This is true nonsense. If I purchase the phone out right then I WILL do what I want with it. I travel to South East Asia frequently and have found that the so called roaming fees from North American carriers are truly extravagant. I can have the phone totally unlocked for $10, get a local sim card for $30 for a months worth of unlimited voice and data use. Once back in the US or Canada, I just pop in the local carrier sim card and back to normal. Of course the other solution is to buy the phone in Asia, which are all unlocked.

So let's encourage people to throw out perfectly good kit - that's a really great idea for the environment. My view is that your contract pays for your handset - and once that's finished (or paid off) what you do with it is entirely your own business.

vcfan said,
did you guys know that "jailbreaking" is now considered illegal too?

There is a huge difference between jail breaking and unlock....

Just another situation in which corporate interests go above the interests of the people. Land of the free my butt.

There's no word yet on what kinds of punishment will be given out if you are caught unlocking a smartphone starting on Saturday.

Hang them. No pity for the criminals.

clearly you do not own the equipment until you complete your contract. so all this is saying is that you cannot unlock or jailbreak your equipment until your contract is up which is when the carrier will unlock it for you anyways. you receive the equipment at a discount but you must complete the contract in order to pay that discount back to the carrier. thats why you are charged an ETF when you cancel early. Carriers are in business to make money. if they handed out free phones all day there would be no money generated. its not about rights. Now if you buy your phone out right then do as you please

Agreed, but that's why you're fined if you cancel before the end of the contract. That means they will not lose money. But what you do with your phone is not their business, as long as you pay the bill. If I get a device and want to give it as a gift to someone else and use the plan in my current phone, it's not the carrier business. This law is simply stupid, you're already bound to the carrier by a contract and you will be fined if you cancel it early. Why would they NEED you to to use the exact same device?

Make no mistake that it was the large multi national corporation lobbyists - AT&T, Verizon, Sprint etc - that pushed for this. The phone manufacturer does not care what you do with the phone once you've bought it, all that matters is they got your money. It's the carrier who wants to keep getting money from you. Next thing is they will institute certain criteria - Sprint does already, I know - in order for you to get your phone unlocked. They will be free to change those criteria as they see fit and you can't do a damn thing about it because it has been signed into law. They will surely try and make in unattainable to unlock your phone, kind of like getting a perfect credit score.

Control, did you know they passes a law where services can shut down your phone/ tablets etc for "political safety" ahh that is the point we need free internet to show the world when the politicians are acting in ways that.....need to be shown.

InsaneNutter said,
Yet is it not legal to jailbreak a phone in the US?

Waste of time to be honest, is anyone really going to bother enforcing it either?


jailbreak is a totally different thing. jailbreak is a way to access a locked system. Unlocking your carrier allows you to use sims from other company.

Brandon said,
Ha. Try to enforce this.
Wouldn't be too hard actually.
Any cell site that uses technology the phone uses can 'hear' the phone. So if you unlocked an AT&T phone and went to T-Mobile, AT&T sites can still hear the phone. Wouldn't be too much more work for AT&T to realize that 'your' phone is 'theirs' and start the proceedings.

abecedarian paradoxious said,
Wouldn't be too hard actually.
Any cell site that uses technology the phone uses can 'hear' the phone. So if you unlocked an AT&T phone and went to T-Mobile, AT&T sites can still hear the phone. Wouldn't be too much more work for AT&T to realize that 'your' phone is 'theirs' and start the proceedings.

If you are paying the contract or have paid the ETF, it won't stand. You are the owner of the phone.

Won't hold up in higher courts.

Brandon said,

If you are paying the contract or have paid the ETF, it won't stand. You are the owner of the phone.

Won't hold up in higher courts.

I posted above how the contracts and such could be interpreted- similar to leasing an apartment. Even if the lease / 'contract' period has expired or you have bought out the lease, you don't own the apartment unless the owner agrees to transfer ownership.

They could use the IMEI number to block the phone and list it as stolen if you still owe money on it and unlock it in which case most telcos should block it use

abecedarian paradoxious said,
I posted above how the contracts and such could be interpreted- similar to leasing an apartment. Even if the lease / 'contract' period has expired or you have bought out the lease, you don't own the apartment unless the owner agrees to transfer ownership.

Actually it would be more like a mortgage because you are not renting the phone, you are making payments toward owning the device. Therefore your lender has no rights to decide how you can remodel or improve the property you bought. But carriers are a racket and as Al Capone reached everybody the way to run a successful racket is to have politicians in your pocket.

Fritzly said,

Actually it would be more like a mortgage because you are not renting the phone, you are making payments toward owning the device. Therefore your lender has no rights to decide how you can remodel or improve the property you bought. But carriers are a racket and as Al Capone reached everybody the way to run a successful racket is to have politicians in your pocket.

Read the contract.

http://www.att.com/shop/en/leg...sCustomerAgreement#myDevice

3.1 Your Device

Your Device must be compatible with, and not interfere with, our Services and must comply with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations. We may periodically program your Device remotely with system settings for roaming service, to direct your Device to use network services most appropriate for your typical usage, and other features that cannot be changed manually.

You agree that you won't make any modifications to your Equipment or its programming to enable the Equipment to operate on any other system. AT&T may, at its sole and absolute discretion, modify the programming to enable the operation of the Equipment on other systems.

If you bought a Device from AT&T, it may have been programmed with a SIM lock which will prevent it from operating with other compatible wireless telephone carriers' services. If you wish to use this Device with the service of another wireless telephone carrier, you must enter a numeric Unlock Code to unlock the phone. AT&T will provide the Unlock Code upon request, provided that you meet certain criteria including, but not limited to the following: (a) your account has been active for at least sixty days and is in good standing (i.e. it has no past due amount or unpaid balance owed AT&T); (b) you have fulfilled your Service Commitment by expiration of any contractual term, upgrading to a new Device under AT&T's standard or early upgrade policies, or payment of any applicable ETF; (c) your Device has not been reported lost or stolen; and (d) AT&T has the Unlock Code or can reasonably obtain it from the manufacturer. AT&T will unlock a maximum of five phones per account, per year. For Devices sold with a Prepaid Plan, AT&T will provide you with the Unlock Code upon request if you provide a detailed receipt or other proof of purchase of the phone and AT&T has the Unlock Code or can reasonably obtain it from the manufacturer. For further details on eligibility requirements and for assistance on obtaining the Unlock Code for your handset, please call 1-800-331-0500 or visit an AT&T company store.

You are solely responsible for complying with U.S. Export Control laws and regulations and the import laws and regulations of foreign countries when traveling internationally with your Device


Edited by abecedarian paradoxious, Jan 25 2013, 8:32pm :

abecedarian paradoxious said,

Maybe you missed the point: what AT&T and co. are allowed to do here has nothing to do with what the general principles of what making monthly payments for an object you BOUGHT mean.

As I stated I do not buy devices from carriers and I do not use AT&T therefore I do not have to modify anything; all the options are present in SIM free phones.

Besides I use T-Mobile....

Fritzly said,

Maybe you missed the point: what AT&T and co. are allowed to do here has nothing to do with what the general principles of what making monthly payments for an object you BOUGHT mean.

As I stated I do not buy devices from carriers and I do not use AT&T therefore I do not have to modify anything; all the options are present in SIM free phones.

Besides I use T-Mobile....

You're the one missing the point, but okay. If you're willing to overlook the agreement you made with the company.
Since you're T-Mob, you agreed to this:
{emphasis added}

http://www.t-mobile.com/Templa...print=true#SeeDataPlanTerms

7. * Your Wireless Device & Compatibility with Other Networks. Your T-Mobile Device may not be compatible with the network and services provided by another service provider. You may buy a Device from us or someone else, but it must, as solely determined by T-Mobile, be compatible with, and not potentially harm, our network. Some T-Mobile features will be available only on T-Mobile Devices purchased from us. A T-Mobile Device is designed to be used only with T-Mobile Service. You may be eligible to have your T-Mobile Device reprogrammed to work with another carrier, but you must contact us to do so. Not all T-Mobile Devices are capable of being reprogrammed. T-Mobile reserves the right to prevent your Device from being used on our network. At times we may remotely change software, systems, applications, features or programming on your Device without notice to address security, safety or other issues that impact the T-Mobile network or your Device. These changes will modify your Device and may affect or erase data you have stored on your Device, the way you have programmed your Device, or the way you use your Device. We may offer you changes to systems, applications, features or programming remotely to your Device; you will not be able to use your Device during the installation of the changes even for emergencies.

Edited by abecedarian paradoxious, Jan 25 2013, 10:00pm :

abecedarian paradoxious said,
You're the one missing the point, but okay. If you're willing to overlook the agreement you made with the company.
Since you're T-Mob, you agreed to this:
{emphasis added}

http://www.t-mobile.com/Templa...print=true#SeeDataPlanTerms

". You may be eligible to have your T-Mobile Device reprogrammed to work with another carrier, but you must contact us to do so." Small detail: my device is not a T-Mobile one;devices bought abroad therefore with a different firmware cannot be slaughtered by US carriers.
I will give you an example: if you want to use Access Point on US carriers they have to enable the function on US Firmware, mine is enabled by default and I could use it when I want. Note that, out of curiosity I tried it with my wife AT&T card and works as well.
I have used SIM free devices since I moved to the US 20 years ago when T-Mobile was still Voice Stream Wireless and I chose it because it was the only available carrier using GSM.

The FBI will come busting down your door and arrest you where you be found guilty in a court of law and will serve 5-10 years in Maximum security prison. Welcome to Amerika, Big Brother is watching you.

xpablo said,
The FBI will come busting down your door and arrest you where you be found guilty in a court of law and will serve 5-10 years in Maximum security prison. Welcome to Amerika, Big Brother is watching you.

yeah... too bad that is not even close to what will happen, the FBI won't even care until you are running a mass unlock ring... and I think the whole unlock scheme is only when your phone is under a contract, after that you can unlock it all you want.... heck Verizon iPhones come unlocked out of the store... what are we going to arrest everyone that has an unlocked phone now?.... This is more about jailbreaking to run malicious apps as opposed to unlocking a phone to swap carriers.... although carriers want paid in full first, then do what you want with it after... hence why you can unlock it even after this weekend if you bought it outright or paid off your contract....

As far as I am concern carriers can go f.... themselves! I always bought SIM free phones from Europe exactly because I do not want to deal with crippled devices and the carriers racket, and besides I have two years warranty instead of one.

I had a Sony-Ericsson phone a while back with AT&T and a contract. It was covered by warranty the entire length of the contract- 2 years. After that, it was a free upgrade to a newer phone if I opted for another 2 year contract, and that had a similar warranty.

Much like renting or leasing an apartment or similar, theoretically, if you're on a contract / subsidized phone, you do not and cannot own the phone unless the carrier agrees to waive their ownership. Therefore you have no right to modify the phone just like you can't remodel an apartment even if your lease is up.

Yes, the analogy may be flawed, but it is as accurate as any other theory or justification for this stupidity.

It can also be used as part of advanced scams... I heard of something where pre-paid phones where bought and unlocked, then remotely activated on a network overseas as a roaming device. They would work until the foreign carrier seeked compensation for the phone, which wasn't supposed to be activated in the first place... so then the origin carrier had to pony up the bill, or lose the ability to roam on the foreign network (which is likely more damaging in profits)

Its completely possible the unlock is not illegal in the foreign markets, and shipping a locked phone there isn't illegal so this will protect nobody really... locks/unlocking is a cool scam none-the-less for everyone. Criminals can always find a way to use securities against the developer if they can't break them.

Edited by srbeen, Jan 25 2013, 4:38pm :

timster said,
because it would take money away that the wireless carrier would charge to unlock the phone

That's like saying fruit should be made illegal because it can be used to make cakes that shops would have charged for.

theyarecomingforyou said,

That's like saying fruit should be made illegal because it can be used to make cakes that shops would have charged for.

This is why the USA's federal government is owned by the big corporations.

I totally agree with you! This has lobbyist written all over it. What is stupid is you are locked into a contract regardless of what you do with the phone. You will pay for that phone regardless. Either by paying crazy over inflated rates or by ETFs if you take that unlocked phone to another carrier. If the government wants to get involved it should have been the other way around and that is to tell the providers that they are mandated to unlock the phones. There are a lot of business men that travel the world that need to run on other networks. This doesn't mean they want to leave ATT.

Nas said,
This is why the USA's federal government is owned by the big corporations.
Not true at all. Its a total "scratch my back" situation. And in the end, I have no animosity towards "mega-corp" because at most they influence the rules, they dont make them. So blame your representative next time. Corps are only doing what you would do if you had the money.

Fus10n said,
If I buy it, its mine to do what I want to with. Its not hurting anyone.
Read the paperwork. Even if you out-right bought the phone, it may not be unlocked.

But in general, I agree with you.

Or you 'pay it off' if you use a service that offers a hw tab, where your 'contract price' is used per month to pay down the 'discount' part of the hardware.

But to be fully honest, you do own the phone, but you havn't paid the bill for it yet.. Like doing work on a mortgaged house vs one you outright own. If you own it do as you please, if not you gotta check with those who 'fronted' you the dough to get it in the first place...

This is where a carrier can step-up and declare ANY phone can be unlocked on their service anytime, or set their own rules. Curious about enforcement moreso than punishment... Guess if you do a warranty claim you could be charged?

Fus10n said,
If I buy it, its mine to do what I want to with. Its not hurting anyone.

if you buy it with a contract its not yours. If you buy it outright unlocked then it doesn't apply obviously. Either way im in Canada so it don't apply to me heh

ILikeTobacco said,
Not if you buy it on a contract since you don't outright own the phone until the end of the contract.

The scam is that in the US is not easy to buy a SIM free phone.

abecedarian paradoxious said,
Read the paperwork. Even if you out-right bought the phone, it may not be unlocked.

But in general, I agree with you.

Some providers still give you a locked phone but since there is no contract attached to it you just need to file a request for the unlock code. I did that with mine and had the code the next day complete with instructions.

Colin McGregor said,

if you buy it with a contract its not yours. If you buy it outright unlocked then it doesn't apply obviously. Either way im in Canada so it don't apply to me heh

Even if you buy it under contract it is still yours. That's what the early termination fee is for. It is the recovery cost in case you drop your contract early.

Fus10n said,
If I buy it, its mine to do what I want to with. Its not hurting anyone.

Yeah this exactly. I buy all my phones outright because I don't know what is going to happen a year from now. This is why I never go on contracts. I'd rather not sign a deal with the devil.

Come to NZ, no locked carriers and everyone tries to buy outright because "normal" people can't afford the $150 per month (130 USD) to get a phone free on contract.

Problem is the phones are 800-1000 NZD each.... buy 'em 2nd hand from the US

shinji257 said,

Even if you buy it under contract it is still yours. That's what the early termination fee is for. It is the recovery cost in case you drop your contract early.

until you pay the early termination fee its not lol. I got the $650 ATIV S. I could have got it for $49 with a 3 yr contract but I bought it outright and it is unlocked. So that phone is mine. If I paid $49 it would cost me $600 to get out of the contract then its my phone.

shinji257 said,

Some providers still give you a locked phone but since there is no contract attached to it you just need to file a request for the unlock code. I did that with mine and had the code the next day complete with instructions.

Which is what I said- "Even if you out-right bought the phone it may not be unlocked."

Colin McGregor said,

until you pay the early termination fee its not lol. I got the $650 ATIV S. I could have got it for $49 with a 3 yr contract but I bought it outright and it is unlocked. So that phone is mine. If I paid $49 it would cost me $600 to get out of the contract then its my phone.

Even then, the phone may be "yours" but the carriers may or may not permit it on the network.