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February 5, 2013

It’s Illegal to Unlock your Phone: What You Should Know About this New Rule

Unlocking your Smartphone is now officially illegal, according to the new rule issued by the Librarian of Congress last October.

The new rule took effect Jan. 26, 2013, so if you had your phone unlocked after that date, you might be in trouble.

However, there is still a lot of confusion about the new ruling and people are understandably confused about the coverage of this new rule. A lot of people are clearly upset about the change because they feel it is curtailing natural competition and consumers’ right to choose.

But let us not focus on that. While the rule is in effect, we have to follow it. So it is important to know what we can and cannot do.

To give you some clarifications, here are some things you should know about this anti-unlocking rule:

It does not cover all phones

The rule only covers phones purchased after the ruling took effect — Jan. 26. Also, its only covers phones locked by a carrier. So if you got a phone that is subsidized by carriers like AT&T or Verizon, then it is safe to say you cannot unlock the phone.

If you want an unlocked phone, you can always buy one at full retail price or buy a previously owned unlocked phone. It might be a bit more expensive but you will have the freedom to choose the carrier that you want.

You can still get your phones unlocked legally

Yes, you can still have your phones unlocked, but there is a process that must be followed. AT&T allows its subscribers to unlock their phones up to five times each year but only for specific reasons like using the device as a business phone when traveling outside the country. If your contract is up, AT&T can then permanently unlock your phone.

Like AT&T, Verizon also allows customers who are in good standing to have their phones unlocked for travel. They also have iPhone 5 units that are automatically unlocked from purchase.

Sprint, does the same. It allows subscribers who have been customers for at least three months to unlock their devices for travel.

The gist of it is, if you want to unlock your phone, you have to have your carrier’s permission, and they must be the one to do it.

You can still jailbreak your phone

Jailbreaking your phone is not the same as unlocking your phone. Jailbreaking a device allows you to run apps that you would not normally be able to. Unlocking your phone just lets you switch from one carrier to another freely.

Under the current rules of the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act), jailbreaking your phone is still completely legal. Strangely, jailbreaking your tablet computer is illegal, but that is a completely different issue and is from a different ruling.

What is important is, when it comes to phones locked by carriers, unlocking is a no-no, but jailbreaking is still a big yes.

Enforcement of the new rule is still in question

There are still a lot of questions about how this law will be enforced. The repercussions can be as minor as the carrier cancelling your service or confiscating your subsidized phone, to major actions like being taken to court.

Under the new law, first-time offenders could face fines of up to $500,000, be imprisoned for five years, or both. Repeat offenders face a fine of $1 million, imprisonment for up to 10 years, or both.

It is not cleat how do carriers go about detecting unlocked phones. What is clear, however, is the major carriers now have a serious legal rule to back their actions against wayward, phone unlocking subscribers who want to switch carriers.

There is currently a petition to reverse the ruling and make phone unlocking legal again. You can lend your voice to the petition as well. But while the rule is in effect, it is probably better to be on the safe side and know what you can and cannot do.

Henry Conrad is a 29-year-old game developer from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Aside from gaming and being a tech junky, he also dabbles in creative writing, which allows him to create great storylines and backgrounds for his characters. Follow him on Twitter and join me in Google +