Library of Congress forbids unlocking mobile phones

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It's now unlawful to unlock a new mobile phone without its wireless carrier's permission, thanks to a decision from the Library of Congress.

The prohibition went into effect Jan. 26 and stems from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a "fantastically overbroad law," according to Mitch Stoltz, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The law forbids tampering with access controls over movies, music, software and other digital goods.

The Librarian of Congress can create exemptions from the law, and it October it did so for unlocking mobile phones, which makes them work with a different carrier. But the exemption only lasted three months.

Now, a wireless carrier can sue those who unlock cellphones. Stoltz says in a Jan. 28 blog post that individuals are unlikely to be sued, but that businesses that unlock and resell phones are at greater risk. A civil suit could result in penalties of $2,500 for each unlocked phone, while a criminal case could lead to a $500,000 fine or five years in prison.

Among Stoltz's criticisms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (.pdf) is that it empowers the Library of Congress to regulate digital technology. "It's absurd that this small group of copyright lawyers and librarians is tasked with making decisions about the future of electronics markets," he says.

Mike Altschul, senior vice president at the wireless industry trade group CTIA, says in a blog post that the ban on unlocking may reduce the demand for stolen phones.

"Making it illegal to unlock devices without carrier consent adds another barrier to these fencing operations," he writes.

Consumers can also buy unlocked phones, with no contracts, directly from carriers if they prefer, he notes.

For more:
- download the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (.pdf)
- go to the EFF blog post
- go to the CTIA blog post

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