It may come as a shock to some of my US readers, but it’s actually been illegal to unlock your cell phone for about a year and a half now. This happened with an exception in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) expired in the early part of 2013. While I suspect that no one ever got arrested for unlocking their personal devices in that time, the fact remained that you COULD have been charged with a criminal offense for doing it.
If this sounds completely bonkers to you, don’t feel bad about it, because it’s been discussed to death on the internet in the interim. Many levels of the government in the US, including the FCC, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the White House have talked about “fixing” this problem, but so far there’s been virtually no traction on it at all. Apparently no one in the government seemed to think that it was very important.
As a quick aside here, I’d like to assure my Canadian readers that unlocking your phones has NEVER been illegal in Canada and you are free to get your phone(s) unlocked using whatever means are at your disposal. If your phone is still under contract, the provider that sold you phone can legally require you to remain in your contact, or pay a fee that would help them recover the subsidy they provided on your phone should you run off a competitor prematurely.
Back to the US though. Just recently the Senate recently approved a bill called “Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act”. They apparently had no party-bias here, as the bill was approved unanimously.
So, does that mean it’s suddenly legal to unlock phones in the US? Well, no, but this does bring it much closer to reality that it’s been for quite some time, but there are...
still a couple of hurtles it must clear. The first one is that before the bill can be presented to the White House for passage into law, the House of Representatives must get onboard with it too.
Unfortunately the House of Representatives recently approved their own version of the bill which differed in a number of key areas, but since it was essentially the same idea, it isn’t too much of a stretch to assume that the two governing bodies can quickly come to a compromise that’s not far off the mark.
Assuming they can do that, the next step is to pass along the bill to the White House for their approval, though with the slow pace at which laws manage to find their way out of the various levels of government (due to incessant bickering between Republicans and Democrats) it’s hard to image that the White House would make any waves and would likely pass the bill without any fuss.
So, if the law passes (more or less in the form the Senate has written it) it will be legal for individuals to unlock their phones to use on a different provider. However, unlike in Canada, the law specifies that in order for this happen the owner must have purchased the phone outright (at full retail price) or has paid off the remaining subsidy. Overall, this isn’t really a problem for most people.
At this point of course we don’t know how long the process will take, especially given the glacial pace it’s been taking up until now. However, there doesn’t appear to be any objection to the bill from either party, and so with any luck it should pass into law sometime during the summer of 2014. Then you won’t have to risk a criminal record just to use your own device where you want.