Federal Mandate Makes Unlocking Cellphones A Punishable Crime

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A mandate from the Librarian of Congress has made it illegal to "unlock" a cell phone.(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

A mandate from the Librarian of Congress has made it illegal to “unlock” a cell phone.(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBS DC) – Legislation mandated by The Librarian of Congress will make unlocking a cellphone an illegal act subject to $2,500 fines, or up to 5 years of imprisonment for larger operations.

People who unlock their phones – which enables mobile phones to connect to alternative networks – is often useful to international travelers who need their phones to function on different networks. Many cellphone users unlock their phones to enable an easier switch between carriers such as AT&T and Verizon services.

According to the Library of Congress’ federal register of rules and regulations, technology experts noted that ‘‘huge numbers’’ of people have already unlocked their phones under 2006 and 2010 exemptions and claimed that ending the unlocks will lead to higher device prices for consumers, increased electronic waste, higher costs associated with switching service providers, and widespread mobile customer ‘‘lock-in.’’

People who purchased their phones after Jan. 26 and unlock their devices are now subject to $2,500 fines. Larger operations could be fined as much as $500,000 and imprisoned for 5 years, according to Public Knowledge.

The ruling stemmed from a request from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) that asked the Librarian of Congress to renew a 2006 rule exempting cellphone unlocking so handsets can be used with other telecom carriers. At the time, the EFF said cell phone unlockers had been successfully sued under the DMCA even though there was no copyright infringement involved in the unlocking.

The new rule won’t affect every phone user: Verizon’s iPhone 5 comes out of the box unlocked already, and AT&T will unlock phones once they are out of contract. Consumers also have the option of paying full-price for a phone — which means rejecting the discounted price that comes with a two-year service contract – to receive an unlocked device immediately.

According to Live Science, Apple sells an unlocked iPhone 5 starting at $649, and Google sells its Nexus 4 unlocked for $300.

If consumers purchase a new phone and want to unlock it before deadline, they must first ask permission from the carrier company. The DMCA only permits phone unlocks that have been approved by the phone carrier beforehand.

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