Change in DMCA starts now: Unlocking cellphones without permission now illegal


Today inaugurates the new mobile phone policy under the DMCA(Digital Millennium Copyright Act): Unlocking your cellphone will now be illegal in the States unless you ask permission from your wireless provider. In 2009, EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) sought to exempt phone unlocking and even won after proposing to the DMCA, but the victory was short lived; although not surprising since telecommunication policies are always changing. In October 2012, the Librarian of Congress was asked to review whether or not unlocked phones and other mobile unlocking options should still be a protected right and the Librarian decided that it was no longer necessary to exempt unlocking.

What does it mean to lock/unlock? The term “locking” means that if your SIM card can only be supported by your service provider/network, and then you must stay with your phone company until your contract ends. “Unlocking” is the physical act of breaking the network constrictions on the SIM card. This may “include changes to internal hardware, connecting the phone to a computer and running software or simply inputting a code into the phone itself. The customer can contact the network provider to determine if unlocking must be performed in person (in the store)” However, just because your contract has ended, doesn’t mean that you can use the same phone with another service provider, unless you unlock it either through third-party applications that teach you how to hack your phone, or bring it somewhere and pay a fee.  Prior to the new change, mobile phone owners were able to legally unlock their phones own their own should they choose to go with another wireless provider. Now, if you try and unlock your phone, you could be violating the new law. This is how phone companies maintain customer loyalty and many consumers are unaware of this choke-hold that mobile carrier companies implement on their consumers. Why do they do it?
According to “Don’t Lock my Freedom” (a campaign to ban restrictive cell phone laws)
Locks do two things for a mobile phone company:
  1. It provides a means for them to recover the subsidy on a phone. Phones are often sold at or below cost to a customer when the company is comfortable they will make up the subsidy from that customer over time. Customers can’t get a subsidized phone and then buy monthly service from a different company (for instance, purchase at cost from WIND but use on another network).

  2. The lock makes it more difficult for consumers to use the phone on a different network. Not only does a customer need to port their number, they also need to get a new phone (or find some way to unlock the phone they have). Unfortunately, this limitation of consumer choice restricts competition – something the Canadian marketplace desperately needs. This also means that Canadians travelling with locked phones overseas are forced to incur international roaming charges, instead of switching to a local provider for the trip.

If you were to read the fine print of the contract you signed with your service provider, you would be aware of all the service provider’s policies. The problem is, does anyone really read through the terms and conditions before they sign that contract with their service provider? Do you ask your service provider about their SIM card policy? Actually, you shouldn’t even have to ask. It should be part of the mobile service provider’s responsibility to let their customer’s know if the SIM card is locked to the provider. In countries like France, Finland, and Italy it is required that carriers inform their customers.   
Although it is illegal to unlock your mobile phone, unlocked phones are still available for purchase and some wireless providers will still continue to offer unlocking services to customers for a fee. So the new change under the DMCA might not affect you to a great extent, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worrisome. Mitch Stoltz, a copyright lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation finds this change problematic because “now there’s nothing preventing the carriers from suing individuals and abandoning the practice of unlocking mobile phones for their customers.”People will no longer have this solid shield created by the Copyright Office in the event they do get sued over this,” Stoltz said in a telephone interview.” Not only that, but there are many benefits to having an unlocked phone such as not having to worry about nightmarish roaming fees and having the freedom to keep your current phone but scout around for the best possible deals.
To learn more about the DMCA, or other media policies and digital rights, visit:

Lisa Yang




    1. Bernadette, while it may be illegal to unlock your phone on your own, some wireless carriers will still be offering unlocking services. With companies like Straight Talk, they have established a policy where they will accept previously unlocked phones. I’m not sure what the legalities are with Straight Talks’ program so that may be something to bring up with the individual company.

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