It Is Now A Felony To Unlock Your Smartphone

The gadgets that you paid for control you, not the other way around. The Atlantic on the most ridiculous law of 2013:

Starting this weekend it is illegal to unlock new phones to make them available on other carriers. Seriously: It’s embarrassing and unacceptable that we are at the mercy of prosecutorial and judicial discretion to avoid the implementation of draconian laws that could implicate average Americans in a crime subject to up to a $500,000 fine and up to five years in prison.

When did we decide that we wanted a law that could make unlocking your smartphone a criminal offense? The answer is that we never really decided. Instead, Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998 to outlaw technologies that bypass copyright protections. In practice it has terrible, and widely acknowledged, negative consequences that affect consumers and new innovation. The DMCA leaves it up to the Librarian of Congress (LOC) to issue exemptions from the law, exceptions that were recognized to be necessary given the broad language of the statute.

After Saturday it will be illegal to unlock a new smartphone, thereby allowing it to switch carriers. This is a result of the exception to the DMCA lapsing. It was not a mistake, but rather an intentional choice by the Librarian of Congress, that this was no longer fair use and acceptable.

Laws that can place people in jail should be passed by Congress, not by the decree of the Librarian of Congress. We have no way to hold the Librarian of Congress accountable for wildly unfair laws. There are still plenty of crazy laws passed by elected officials, but at least we can then vote them out of office.

23 Comments on "It Is Now A Felony To Unlock Your Smartphone"

  1. emperorreagan | Jan 29, 2013 at 11:25 am |

    The beuracrats in high government positions are just as corrupt and myopic as the buffoons in congress. If only the earth would swallow that horrible city and digest it in its mantle. Perhaps she could eat London, Moscow, Beijing, and she’s at it. If the earth will get on board with that, I’ll make it my life’s goal to make a Tums big enough to deal with the indigestion.

  2. Liam_McGonagle | Jan 29, 2013 at 11:26 am |

    So if the legal principle is that the proprietary nature of the technology used to construct the phone makes the transaction de facto a rental and not a purchase, does that make the manufacturer a party to all crimes committed with the phone? Like the insider trading scandals surrounding Stephen A. Cohen’s hedge funds?

    • emperorreagan | Jan 29, 2013 at 11:44 am |

      That would certainly be an entertaining outcome. Does that mean Apple, Blackberry, are also terrorist organizations if they provide hardware used in terrorist activity? Could Samsung be named as a co-defendant in every drug sting?

      • Liam_McGonagle | Jan 29, 2013 at 11:49 am |

        I wouldn’t mind seeing their board of directors’ mug shots plastered all over the web.

  3. What frustrates me is that its possible to explain these things to most people but most don’t care. They are basically fine with the power relationships these things illustrate as long as they can play with shiny gadgets.

    • As a former fiber optics field engineer – who got to see firsthand the cooperation between Telephone companies and the Gov. – I carry a thirty dollar phone that won’t even take a picture. It calls and texts (and saves me a small fortune) which is all what I want a phone to do. If I want pictures I’ll buy a phone. If I want to use the internet I go home and use my PC. Not that I am excusing all of this. Simply saw it coming.

      • Yeah, that’s what I have. I agree. I mean its sort of cool to have little tiny internet pages and little tiny movie screens on your phone…but not that cool.

        Its like the Swiss Army knife version of phones and the internet.

    • Jin The Ninja | Jan 29, 2013 at 2:34 pm |


    • emperorreagan | Jan 29, 2013 at 4:06 pm |

      Even more than the broader power dynamics (which I find infuriating), I think it’s vital to consider the personal power dynamics. Is this a thing I can cast away, or is this a thing that has gained mastery over me?

      The alarming thing about smart phones is the quick transition from being a luxury item to a thing that one can’t live without. If it’s a thing you can leave in your nightstand and forget about for a day or two, it’s probably not a big issue for you. If it’s the first thing you look at in the morning, the last thing you look at before you go to sleep, and forgetting it in the morning causes you to panic, then you probably need to spend some time reflecting on your relationship to that particular thing.

      • Yeah, I have a cheap phone, which I leave laying around and the issue I run into is other people resenting me not being completely available to be contacted at all times.

        • Kevin Bacconaise | Jan 30, 2013 at 6:10 pm |

          My family thinks I’m dead or in jail if I don’t pick up. Same goes with friends, except for the times where they get pissed when they don’t get contacted within 5 minutes.

  4. I’ve been tryin for days to comit the “felony” of rooting this damned phone and nothing! Its like the manufacturer block it somehow!

    The guys from Sony can kiss my ass!

  5. lazy_friend | Jan 29, 2013 at 2:19 pm |

    This applies to the subsidized phones. You can buy an unlocked phone. I don’t like the draconian law tho. In a way it is a rental, as the carrier is hoping to make money off of your plan, that’s why they pay 600, 700 + for a phone from the manufacture and cells it to you for 200. They make way more money on your plan tho, several times as much, they are just trying to lower the risk of their initial investment with some harsh laws. We the monkeys always have to bow down to the overlords. Send gsm phones out of the country and cell them there. People from brazil come here to buy unlocked iphones all the time and they pay top dollar.

  6. Consumers consume, they have no other use or meaning to government. If you live in a Western country & you aren’t consuming then you are of no use to the government, you don’t count. A consumerist economy requires us to buy more stuff, & more often than before. Any new law that forces us to buy more shit buys us more time as we hurtle towards that reality check cliff.

  7. Jin The Ninja | Jan 29, 2013 at 2:35 pm |

    where is that apple shill who told me a few months back that the “ability to unlock your iphone is the definition of ‘open source’ technology?”

    • emperorreagan | Jan 29, 2013 at 3:52 pm |

      Smart phones are the definition of closing things down: moving things into little markets where you’re locked into a handful of wireless carriers and locked into a single, managed market for all software where the master is taking a cut.

  8. Bruteloop | Jan 29, 2013 at 4:23 pm |

    As far as I know this is only the US. There is a whole world outside of that country.

  9. Bruteloop | Jan 29, 2013 at 4:23 pm |

    As far as I know this is only the US. There is a whole world outside of that country.

  10. BuzzCoastin | Jan 29, 2013 at 7:41 pm |

    freedom Amerikkkan style
    ya gotta love it

  11. InfvoCuernos | Jan 29, 2013 at 7:51 pm |

    I’m of the opinion that pretty much any “service contract” is a form of colonization. If you are one of those liars that says they read every bit of every EULA or contract and agree with it 100%, then you are saying that you would like to be taken advantage of. The rest of us just take it on faith that the contract can and will be changed by the corporation at any time to their advantage and our detriment -just like was done to indigenous people from Africa to Australia to America. This is just one of the ways they have found to enforce this colonization.

  12. Land of the free*!

  13. Land of the free*!

  14. dumbsaint | Jan 30, 2013 at 5:08 am |

    The cost of keeping someone in jail for 5 years is justified to teach a lesson against hurting some corporation by maybe 1k?

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