Picking Your Own Lock

December 6th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

Unlocking your mobile phone is still illegal. Would you do it anyway?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

It has been illegal to unlock your own mobile phone to legally connect with another mobile network since last year. In other words, if you bought a smartphone and your contract with your wireless provider doesn’t explicitly permit you to change the software on your phone so you can use it with another provider, you’re breaking the law.

Unlocking phones became illegal last year when the Librarian of Congress removed it from a list of exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the law that governs much of what is copyrighted online. A recent article in The Atlantic called the rule “absurd.”

Unsurprisingly, the ban seems to have done little more than create a new breed of lawbreakers. According to Venturebeat’s John Koetsier, sales were up 71 percent for a UK company that helps users unlock their phones remotely. Consumers go to Mobile Unlocked, tell the company which phone they have and which carrier they use, and after placing an order, receive an unlock code that allows them to use their phone with any carrier. And, the site’s Darren Kingman told Koetsier, he doesn’t understand why it would be illegal in the United States. “Unlocking is completely legal in pretty much every other country at the minute, except for the U.S.,” he said.

The White House agrees. In fact, a January petition on whitehouse.gov, which got 114,000 signatures, prompted a response by R. David Edelman, a Senior White House Advisor for Internet, Innovation & Privacy. “The White House agrees with the 114,000+ of you who believe that consumers should be able to unlock their cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties,” he wrote. He said that the White House also believed the same principle should apply to tablets. “And if you have paid for your mobile device, and aren’t bound by a service agreement or other obligation, you should be able to use it on another network.”

Unlocking your phone is one step closer to being legal, since the new Federal Communications Commission chairman, Tom Wheeler, proposed in his first few days on the job that the CTIA Wireless Association move quickly toward unlocking phones for consumers. Still, consumers would need to ride out their contracts. The ban on unlocking phones, writes Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin, can create problems for travelers when they want to travel overseas without paying huge roaming fees. Wheeler wrote in a letter to Steve Largent, CEO of the trade group that represents cellular carriers, “It is now time for the industry to act voluntarily or for the FCC to regulate.”

With most authorities in agreement that the ban should end, would you feel less of an ethical conflict if you chose to unlock your phone? Or would you wait until the ban is overturned to unlock your device? Weigh in.