Unlocking your used cell phone may be illegal thanks to a strict anti-hacking law called DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) passed last year, with folks online pretty upset with it’s broad stroke of power. This didn’t really hit the public’s eye until recently though, with the closing of a short window of legality allowed by the librarian of Congress. Back in October it was decided that, under the DMCA, unlocking your phone was illegal. The Librarian of Congress allowed a three month window for people to unlock as many phones as they wanted… that window closed this past Saturday.
Why You Should Care Your Used Cell Phone is Now Locked
So what does this mean? Essentially, if you bought a phone from AT&T, and wanted to unlock it yourself to work on Straight Talk, you would now be breaking the law by tampering with something you supposedly own. The sentence for such an act can be as high as ten years in prison with up to $500,000 in fines. That’s right… Something that would cost the provider no where near the fine, or jail time, if you never got caught. Many are screaming foul on this law, claiming it’s punishment is wildly out of balance. Considering the shortest sentence for 1st degree murder is the same as the maximum sentence for unlocking your phone… I think I agree.
Why it Hurts Consumers more
Unlocking your device has a lot of benefits besides just owning the same phone and moving to another network. Many people who travel abroad unlock their GSM phones to work on multiple planes, all of which they legally pay for individually, so they can do business in any and all countries. Now, the only legal way to unlock a phone, is either buying it that way from the manufacturer, or having your cell provider unlock it for you or getting a used cell phone that was manufactured earlier than last year. Having a provider unlock it for you is as hard as pulling teeth at times, with only AT&T doing it when you’re out of contract. Verizon would simply tug you along until you gave up. So now selling your iPhone may become tougher since many buyers tend to unlock used iPhones since they sell quicker and at higher prices. Now the demand for such a device, though still high, will plummet in comparison.
This is quite the puzzling law to other countries like Australia. In Australia it is illegal NOT to have a phone always unlocked. Meaning, if you buy a phone from a provider, any provider, it is unlocked before you even get it, new or used cell phone, it doesn’t matter. The reasoning behind this is that having a phone locked to one provider is considered anti-competition. While in the US, unlocking a phone is considered a breech of copyright, in some oddly broad definition of the word. There is an online petition at whitehouse.gov to make unlocking phones legal, while there is a similar petition online to repel the DMCA entirely. Both have very few signatures and even if they reach the required 100k to be officially responded to by the white house, there is no guarantee it will be acted upon.
The best a citizen with a used cell phone can do in these cases is contact their local congressman or woman to bring up a amendment to the existing bill/law. One that defines the infringement of copyright more clearly, and makes it less broad than it is now.