New cellphone ‘unlocking’ rule has made it illegal to ‘jailbreak’ your phone–REVISED

[NOTE: Many readers have pointed out inaccuracies in this post. While I did put forth a serious effort in researching the material found here, it looks like I got it wrong…and I do apologize for those inaccuracies. My information was based on this article: http://www.pcworld.com/article/2026236/phone-unlocking-ban-could-could-hit-you-in-the-wallet.html , which is the same link found hear the end of this post. In replies to several individuals who provided negative comments on this piece, I pointed out that I referenced that article as the source for this one. Regardless, an author has an obligation to his or her readers to provide correct information. I should have checked the accuracy of my sources better.]

How many of you out there have “jailbroken” phones? There’s probably quite a few of you, but there were probably a lot more only a few years ago when smartphones first arrived and choices for apps were more slim.

Jailbreaking means that you unlock your phone from its cellular service carrier. It’s the act of connecting your cellphone to a computer, downloading and running special software that will remove or change part of the phone’s special data. This data is what distinguishes it as a phone whose cellular service carrier is AT&T…or Sprint, or T-Mobile, or Verizon.

Why would you do such a thing? Well, for one reason, you could then go to one of the many third-party carriers–like Cricket, for instance–and pay a fraction of your present monthly bill for the same or better (usually unlimited data and voice) service plans.

Let’s say you have an iPhone 5, and you pay $130 for AT&T service–which includes unlimited voice, long distance and text messaging, and a 5GB per month data cap. Were you to jailbreak your iPhone and obtain service from, say, Cricket, you’d pay $60 a month, for all of the same features. You’d be saving more than you’d be spending, and have an unlimited data plan (although according to the website, after 2.5GB there is some loss of data download speed due to data throttling).

Another option goes this way, which isn’t jailbeaking: most people buy a new cellphone and pay $199 (for example), and sign a new two-year contract with the carrier, which includes the higher costs per month. The alternative is to pay full price for the phone (say, $600), which you’ll receive as an unlocked unit, and then choose from whom you’d like to have service. (That’s how it’s done practically everywhere else, except the US.) The carriers here make their money from the two-year service plan you are locked into, so they offer the phone at a reduced price up front. At the end of the two-year plan you’ll have paid as much as three times more had you just purchased the phone outright for full price and paid the $60 monthly fee, for example.

If jailbreaking is so great and saves so much money–then, well, why doesn’t everybody do it? Simple: it’s a bit of a bother, most people aren’t very technical, and most are unaware such a concept exists.

And, after last Saturday, it didn’t matter…because it’s now illegal for you to jailbreak your phone, and there could be hefty fines if you’re caught.

A few days ago, PCWorld.com reported that after January 19, it became illegal for you to jailbreak your phone. Before, it was frowned upon–the cell carriers, for obvious reasons, didn’t want you doing that. In fact, phones have been rendered unusable (“bricked”) when the carriers sent security updates that now conflicted with the phone’s altered software.

“HOW CAN THEY DO THAT? IT’S MY PHONE, I PAID FOR IT!”

Uhh, read your service contract. As long as you are under that contract, you are LEASING service from them. If you make any modifications to the phone during that time, you are messing with their service, which is a breach of contract. So, yes they can.

(The article was dated January 25, but its verb tense makes it appear to have been written prior to that, before the law took effect. I’ve changed two such references within the story.)

Here’s an excerpt that explains more about the new law:

As of [last] Saturday, your options for owning an unlocked phone become far more limited. You can ask your carrier to unlock it—and good luck with that—or you can pay a premium to manufacturers like Apple or Google for a new unlocked phone. You just can’t unlock your phone yourself—at least, not legally.

That decision was made not by voters, the courts, or even Congress. It was made by one man, 83-year-old Congressional Librarian James Hadley Billington, who is responsible for interpreting the meaning of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Billington decided last October that unlocking your phone yourself is a violation of the Act, which was originally written to prevent digital piracy.

Congressional Librarian James Hadley Billington

When Billington made his decision, he also granted a 90-day exemption period in which people could still buy phones that they could later unlock, but only after asking their carrier to do it and getting “no” for an answer. That period end[ed] Saturday. After that, the question of whether or not the smartphone you buy is truly your own gets a little fuzzy.

The idea that a decision that will affect so many, and involves so much money, could rest on a single unelected person is bizarre at best and absurd at worst.

But indeed, the law reads in Section 1201 of the DMCA: “Upon the recommendation of the Register of Copyrights, the Librarian of Congress may designate certain classes of works as exempt from the prohibition against circumvention of technological measures that control access to copyrighted works.”

What’s it mean to me?

When you unlock your phone you change part of the firmware code in such a way that makes the phone able to connect to more than one wireless provider’s network. You can unlock your phone by plugging it into your computer and using any of the widely available unlocking software downloads.

The ban means that you won’t be able to (lawfully) decouple your phone from one carrier and move to another carrier that uses the same cellular technology (GSM, CDMA, etc.) unless your carrier agrees to send you an unlock code. Imagine buying a car equipped with software that prevents you from taking certain roads—and being legally barred from disabling the software!

This has not sit well with many users–to the point that a petition is circulating to repeal the law.

Also from PCWorld:

Over the weekend, unlocking your smartphone became a crime. That decision, made by the Congressional Librarian last October, went into effect on Saturday.

Now there’s a petition to reverse the decision. The petition, posted at the White House website, already has almost 29,000 of the 100,000 signatures it needs to elicit a response from the Obama administration. You must create a whitehouse.gov account to sign the petition.

The petition asks that “the White House ask the Librarian of Congress to rescind this decision, and failing that, champion a bill that makes unlocking permanently legal.”

Why start a petition?

The author of the petition, 27-year-old app developer Sina Khanifar, says the ban only gives wireless carriers more leverage over smartphone owners. “Since you’re already paying for the subsidy by signing a contract with your carrier, locking is just a way for carriers to force their customers to buy a new device if they want to change their carrier.”

Smartphone owners now can’t legally unlock their phones for use on a different cell network without their current carrier’s permission, even after their contract has expired.

Smartphone owners who travel abroad can’t make their phones ready to connect to compatible overseas networks, which forces them to pay expensive roaming charges to their carrier back home.

The unlocking ban reduces the resale value of phones, because people want to buy used phones that give them a choice of networks.

Why opposition to unlocked phones?

The Congressional Librarian (agreeing with the CTIA, the wireless industry association) felt that phone unlocking should not be legal because the wireless carriers already have very liberal unlocking policies, and that unlocked phones can be bought directly from phone manufacturers.

Under the law, the penalties for unlocking a subsidized wireless phone without carrier consent can be severe. If convicted, an offender can be fined up to $500,000 or imprisoned up to five years for the first offense. An offender can be fined up to a million dollars and/or go to prison for up to ten years for each subsequent offense.

That seems ridiculously steep. To unlock a cellphone?

Watch this space for more news on this topic. Whether you care about jailbreaking a phone or not, the bigger concern is having more of your rights as a consumer taken away.

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2 thoughts on “New cellphone ‘unlocking’ rule has made it illegal to ‘jailbreak’ your phone–REVISED

  1. Okay, once again: I am aware of the differences. I referenced an article that had incorrect information…so yes, since then I probably should have noted that in another post. I would like to believe that anyone interested in this topic would seek more information on it.

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