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Is It Illegal to Unlock Your Smartphone?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on January 29, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Back in the Wireless Dark Ages, you actually had to get a new phone number if you hopped between cell phone carriers. In 2003, the Federal Communications Commission adopted local number portability rules, and made it all better.

Last week, you could legally unlock or "jail break" your cell phone, and take it with you if you hopped between cell phone carriers. Now, the Library of Congress has made it all worse.

Saturday, it became illegal to unlock a new smartphone without permission, the Los Angeles Times reports.

How did this happen, and who can you blame? Surprisingly, the Library of Congress and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act are at fault.

The Library of Congress promulgates regulations under the DMCA. In the past, the LOC had approved an exemption that permitted users to unlock their phones and use them on different networks. Carriers fought to the exemption, and the LOC chose not to renew it in October 2012, The New York Times reports.

Apparently, the good folks over at the LOC think that the abundance of options in the mobile marketplace -- including the ability to buy unlocked devices -- provided ample alternatives to circumvention. The final rule implementing the change states:

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.

The silver lining on this otherwise dark DMCA cloud is that the changes won't affect "legacy phones." CNET reports that "used (or perhaps unused) phones previously purchased or otherwise acquired by a consumer," are okay to unlock.

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