Modders beware! By the 26th of January a 90-day exemption made to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act will expire, at which point it will no longer be legal to unlock a newly purchased cell phone. The decision was first made in October of 2012, when the Librarian of Congress decided that unlocking phones was no longer allowed, thus removing said exemption. To accommodate this change, the librarian granted a 90-day grace period, during which you could still purchase and unlock a phone.
Unlocking a phone refers to the process of removing restrictions that keep it from working on more than one carrier’s network. This is different from “jailbreaking”, which is a similar process, but does not remove carrier restrictions. Instead jailbreaking allows you to run modified software, the kind that would not normally run, on your smartphone. Jailbreaking is still legal at the time of this writing. An unlocked phone can be switched from one network to another, allowing individuals to switch providers with a single phone. This allows them to save a bit of money and hassle, since migrating your data from one phone to another is often time consuming and difficult, and oftentimes carriers like T-Mobile offer discounts on contracts when you bring your own phone. Unlocked phones are also useful to international travellers who need their phones to work on carriers in different countries.
This move is not without its criticism, however. Christopher S. Reed from the U.S. Copyright Office has pointed out that under the current law, only consumers who own the phone, and the software on it are allowed to unlock it. Additionally, groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have questioned whether the right of individuals to unlock their phones is within the scope of the DMCA, stating that the DMCA was not meant to lock individuals into a single carrier.
Come Saturday, the new rule will take effect, and you’ll end up having to break the law to unlock your phone. This new rule won’t affect everyone, however, and it will still be legal for carriers to unlock your phone for you. In fact, many of them already offer to unlock the phone for you under certain terms and conditions. AT&T, for example, will unlock the phone once the contract has expired, and Verizon’s iPhone 5 plans come with the phone unlocked out of the box. Alternatively, those interested in purchasing unlocked phone can buy one, sans plan or contract, from various providers and retailers for full price.