Before the iPhone, unlocking a mobile phone was relatively straight forward, and frankly the carriers didn’t mind too much as competition was fairly low (at least with the devices anyway). Then along came the iPhone, and with it exclusivity to networks. Now, carriers don’t want people unlocking these devices and using them on other networks because they lose that money that they paid to get that exclusiveness in the first place. Fast forward a few years and almost every carrier under the sun now stocks the iPhone so rules are more relaxed.
However, a new federal policy in the United States is set to go into effect this Saturday that will make it illegal for mobile phone owners to unlock their devices for use on other carriers unless specifically authorized by their carriers. The policy only applies to devices sold on or after Saturday, with devices sold/purchased before this date unaffected.
In October 2012, the Librarian of Congress, who determines exemptions to a strict anti-hacking law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), decided that unlocking mobile phones would no longer be allowed. But the librarian provided a 90-day window during which people could still buy a phone and unlock it. That window closes on January 26.
The new legislation is simply aimed at making it illegal for the unauthorised unlocking services scattered all over the web to operate and unlock devices, and instead leave it down to the carriers discretion.
The Federal Register outlined the following as reasoning behind the new legislation.
The Register concluded after a review of the statutory factors that an exemption to the prohibition on circumvention of mobile phone computer programs to permit users to unlock “legacy” phones is both warranted and unlikely to harm the market for such programs. At the same time, in light of carriers’ current unlocking policies and the ready availability of new unlocked phones in the marketplace, the record did not support an exemption for newly purchased phones. Looking to precedents in copyright law, the Register recommended that the class designated by the Librarian include a 90-day transitional period to allow unlocking by those who may acquire phones shortly after the new exemption goes into effect.
Users will still be able to purchase unlocked unsubsidised devices through carriers, with some such as AT&T unlocking the device at the end of the contract term, as the legislation does not apply to authorised unlocking of devices.