You likely have a cellphone that you bought from a carrier, like AT&T, Verizon or Sprint, and that phone only works on that carrier's cellular and data network -- unless you "unlock" it. That is a software process that allows the phone to work on other carriers if you put in a new SIM card or want to take the phone to another carrier for service. If that sounds complicated to you and like something you wouldn't bother with, then today's news won't matter to you. You can read the full docket here but, in short, it is illegal to unlock a phone from a carrier unless you have that carrier's permission to do so. When it was legal, people may have unlocked their phone to resell it when they upgraded to a newer model or to use it with an overseas carrier and take advantage of local rates when they traveled abroad. If your phone has already been unlocked, you are grandfathered in and won't face any legal issues.
The worst-case scenario for an individual or civil offense could be as much as a $2,500 fine.A As for those planning to profit off of the act or a criminal offense -- such as a cellphone reseller -- the fine could be as high as $500,000 and include prison time. Jeschke said that the EFF hasn't heard of anybody who faced legal action during an earlier period when it was illegal to unlock phones in the U.S. In 2015, there will be another rule making over the exemptions and, according to Jeschke, the question of the legality or illegality of unlocking a phone will likely be revisited. Effective last week, the Librarian of Congress officially criminalized the unlocking of new cell phones, with fines for one-time offenders reaching as high as $500,000 in addition to up to five years in prison.


Unlocking cell phones so that they can be used on different carriers’ networks was a fairly common practice that presented a variety of potential benefits to consumers. So how did an unelected bureaucrat (the nation’s top librarian) appointed to his position more than 25 years ago, end up with the power to criminalize what has until recently been a common activity?
Under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which outlaws technologies that bypass copyright protections, the Librarian of Congress is directed to issue exemptions to law. Although it’s one of the more absurd examples in recent memory, the Library of Congress isn’t the only federal agency issuing pseudo-legislation that affects millions of Americans without any input from their elected representatives in Congress.
In 2011, a controversial mandate by the Department of Health and Human Services required that private health insurance plans cover contraception, even for nonprofit groups that opposed contraception for religious reasons (you may recall that GOP support for a religious exception to the mandate was ridiculously labeled a “war on women”). Aside from being patently undemocratic, permitting librarians and other bureaucrats to exercise such wide-sweeping legislative authority also reduces transparency in government. Wireless carriers have been fighting for years to remove the DMCA exception for phone unlocking. Constituents also know how to lobby their elected officials and follow developments in Congress, but they are generally clueless about how to participate in complex agency rule-making processes. But if that's something you've done before or have thought about doing, then you should know that starting today it is illegal to unlock a subsidized phone or tablet that's bought through a U.S. As of January 31, a White House petition to rescind the decision has more than 46,000 signatures.


The exemptions are only good for three years, and interestingly, the unlocking of new cell phones was previously exempted in both 2006 and 2010. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued new rules that effectively banned new coal-burning power plants. How much influence might cellular companies like AT&T and Verizon have had in the chief librarian’s phone unlocking decision?
The Librarian of Congress formally announced his prohibition on phone unlocking back in October 2012, but most Americans didn’t even notice the rule-making until three-months after the decision was already made. Copyright Office and Library of Congress are no longer allowing phone unlocking as an exemption under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Federal agencies are making enormously influential decisions on behalf of Americans and most people don’t even know it! Having a locked phone means you will not be able to use your cell phone with other carriers besides the one you have a contract with.
You pay the network for service on a monthly basis and they give you the phone for a cheaper price than it actually is worth.



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