As noted by Tech News Daily, a new federal policy in the United States is set to go into effect this Saturday that will make it illegal for certain mobile phone owners to unlock their devices for use on other carriers unless specifically authorized by their carriers. The policy applies to newly purchased devices beginning on Saturday, but not to legacy devices purchased prior to that date.
In October 2012, the Librarian of Congress, who determines exemptions to a strict anti-hacking law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), decided that unlocking mobile phones would no longer be allowed. But the librarian provided a 90-day window during which people could still buy a phone and unlock it. That window closes on January 26.
Unlocking devices allows users to take their phones to other carriers such as T-Mobile or to use SIM cards from international carriers while traveling abroad without needing to purchase expensive international roaming packages from their domestic carrier.
Users can, of course, still purchase unlocked iPhones at unsubsidized prices, and, last April, AT&T began unlocking iPhones for customers whose contract terms were completed or who had paid early termination fees to end them early. The SIM card slots on the Verizon iPhone 5 are already unlocked, while Sprint announced that it would unlock the SIM card slot on its iPhones for international usage three months after purchase.
In the decision outlined in the Federal Register, these policies were cited as reasons for not allowing an unlocking exemption to the DMCA for newly purchased devices.
The Register concluded after a review of the statutory factors that an exemption to the prohibition on circumvention of mobile phone computer programs to permit users to unlock “legacy” phones is both warranted and unlikely to harm the market for such programs. At the same time, in light of carriers’ current unlocking policies and the ready availability of new unlocked phones in the marketplace, the record did not support an exemption for newly purchased phones. Looking to precedents in copyright law, the Register recommended that the class designated by the Librarian include a 90-day transitional period to allow unlocking by those who may acquire phones shortly after the new exemption goes into effect.
Carriers such as AT&T already forbid unauthorized unlocking in their customer contracts, but the clarification of DMCA policy with respect to unlocking will now make the issue a criminal one. iPhone unlocking services have enjoyed a fair amount of popularity, and while a substantial pool of eligible legacy devices will remain, it appears that these services will be unable to legally unlock any new devices for their customers.