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Cell Phone Unlocking Named Legal by U.S. Government

United States President, Barack Obama, has signed a bill into law reinstating the legal ability for consumers to ‘unlock’ their cell phone in order to use a different carrier without having to purchase a new contract-held phone.

The bill is known as the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, will order the United States Library of Congress (LoC) to allow cell phone consumers the legal ability to ‘unlock’ their device. Typically devices are locked to a certain network carrier such as AT&T, Verizon or Sprint, and will allow the consumer to use only that cell carrier on that phone, in doing so, the consumer will have to buy a new phone to switch carriers or use another service.

“As long as their phone is compatible and they have complied with their contracts, consumers will now be able to enjoy the freedom of taking their mobile service – and a phone they already own – to the carrier that best fits their needs,” the White House said in a statement.

Unlocking is not the same as jailbreaking or rooting a mobile phone, unlocking allows for the phone to be used freely across any desired telecom.

When consumers purchase a mobile phone or tablet, there is a general tradeoff, a substantially lower fee on the phone with a two-year contract with the telecom. The operating system built into the phone encrypts or ‘locks’ the device so that it cannot be used across any network aside from theirs.

Jailbreaking or rooting is the process of removing built in limitations on iOS and Android devices. Jailbreaking and rooting allow tweaks, mods, and hacks to be installed throughout the device to enhance functionality or bypass inbuilt operating system barriers by gaining root access to the device file system manager.

As cell phone unlocking was once named legal, the Librarian of Congress (LoC) named ‘unlocking’ illegal as of last year due to an amendment to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The previous law stated it was legal for consumers to jailbreak or root their devices, but illegal to unlock any device, regardless if it was a smartphone or tablet. This gave legal authority to cell carriers to legally keep phones ‘locked’, and force consumers to face large fee’s when switching carriers.

The WhiteHouse website alongside various politicians have said the new cell unlocking law will help promote consumer choice in the wireless market, as everyone will now be able to freely choose their mobile carrier without facing large fines.

Though the law instated makes unlocking devices legal, it does not force carriers to provide customers unlock codes without valid reasoning. Consumers who are currently enrolled or in previously-signed contracts with their providers first have to meet the demands and satisfy the terms of that ongoing contract before begin allowed to legally unlock the device.

“The effort began with a digital petition on the White House’s We the People site, an online platform where citizens can offer ideas for the Administration to take action on important issues facing our country,” Senator Patrick Leahy and Jeff Zients wrote on the White House blog.

“The petition drew an extraordinary response, with more than 114,000 citizens making their voices heard. And within two weeks, the White House answered with a call to action, laying out steps the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), industry, and Congress could take to ensure copyright law would not undermine wireless competition.” he added.

*To clarify, mobile devices sold unlocked were not and are not illegal (as of 8/3/2014). Unlocking phones that were previously locked to certain telecoms with a contract was considered illegal. Phones sold unlocked are not illegal as they are not bound to any specific telecom.

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