When the Librarian of Congress made it illegal to unlock smartphones back in October of 2012, they gave the public a 90-day extension to allow them time to learn about the law. Well, the 90-days officially expired this weekend on January 26, and it is now illegal to unlock smartphones. The law is part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which was written to protect copyrighted material in the digital domain.
Advocacy groups agree with the part of the law that protects copyrighted material of writers, artists and other content creators, but they began to question the portions of the law which allows phone carriers to determine what a consumer can do with his or her device.
The question is valid, and consumers are also wondering just how far the reach of the phone carrier extends when the device is in their possession. If you have not purchased the phone outright and you have signed a contract, the carrier is basically the owner of the phone until you meet your contractual obligation. During this period, any alteration to the product that goes against the policies of the company can be considered a violation, and in the case of the new DMCA rule, you are breaking the law.
The law says it is not an inconvenience to have a locked phone because you have many options in purchasing an unlocked phone. The law clearly states this point by saying, “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.”
In a nutshell, the law is saying you don’t have to buy a locked phone.
The popularity of unlocking a phone is so prevalent that carriers themselves offer the service to their customers as an option. While AT&T will unlock the phone after the contract is finished, Verizon offers the iPhone 5 already unlocked. T-Mobile, on the other hand, offers a service for purely unlocking the iPhone because it has not been able to offer the phone, and only later this year will it have the iPhone as part of its lineup.
Needless to say, phone companies have to be very careful in enforcing the law. While they are within their right to do so, it would a public relations nightmare if it came out that one of the companies went after their own customer in a way that was considered harsh.
Edited by Allison Boccamazzo