The clock to unlock a new mobile phone is running out.
In October 2012, the Librarian of Congress, who determines exemptions to a strict anti-hacking law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), decided that unlocking mobile phones would no longer be allowed. But the librarian provided a 90-day window during which people could still buy a phone and unlock it. That window closes on Jan. 26.
Unlocking a phone frees it from restrictions that keep the device from working on more than one carrier's network, allowing it run on other networks that use the same wireless standard. This can be useful to international travelers who need their phones to work on different networks. Other people just like the freedom of being able to switch carriers as they please.
The new rule against unlocking phones won't be a problem for everybody, though. For example, Verizon's iPhone 5 comes out of the box already unlocked, and AT&T will unlock a phone once it is out of contract.
You can also pay full-price for a phone, not the discounted price that comes with a two-year service contract, to receive the device unlocked from the get-go. Apple sells an unlocked iPhone 5 starting at $649, and Google sells its Nexus 4 unlocked for $300. [See also: Can I Get a Smartphone Without a Contract?]
Advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) questions whether the DMCA has the right to determine who can unlock a phone. In an email to TechNewsDaily, EFF attorney Mitch Stoltz said, "Arguably, locking phone users into one carrier is not at all what the DMCA was meant to do. It's up to the courts to decide."
If you do buy a new phone and want to unlock it before the deadline, you must first ask your carrier if the company will unlock your phone for you. The DMCA only permits you to unlock your phone yourself once you've asked your carrier first.
(Note that unlocking is different from "jailbreaking," which opens the phone up for running additional software and remains legal, although it can be risky, for smartphones.)
Christopher S. Reed from the U.S. Copyright Office noted in an email to TechNewsDaily that "only a consumer, who is also the owner of the copy of software on the handset under the law, may unlock the handset."
But come Saturday, you'll have to break the law to unlock your phone. If you want to get in under the gun, you can search the Internet for the code to enter to unlock the phone or find a tool that will help you accomplish the task.
The change could crimp the style of carriers like T-Mobile, which have pushed "bring your own device" as an incentive for switching service providers. Such carriers promise savings in exchange for using your existing phone on their network.
T-Mobile has promoted this notion for iPhones, in particular, since the company is the only one of the big four U.S. carriers that doesn't sell the iPhone (although it will, in the months ahead). The carrier goes so far as to feature ads displaying an open padlock, with an iPhone replacing the body of the lock. T-Mobile declined to comment.