Phone Unlocking: What’s Legal and What’s Not

Filed under Editorials by Adam Torkildson on July 14, 2016 at 12:19 PM

Not all phones are available on all carriers ― or even on all carrier service plans ― to the supreme dismay of nearly every phone-carrying person on Earth. Fortunately, there are ways around this inconvenience. Unfortunately, when it comes to technology, with the unending pages of user agreements, it can be difficult to understand what is legal when it comes to tinkering with one’s phone.

As we progress farther into the digital age, it seems that the rules regarding our digital devices are becoming more and more restrictive. If you didn’t read the fine print before you bought your phone, you might want to read up on how you can legally tinker with your own mobile tech.

What Is Unlocking?

Unlocking a phone is a process that allows a user to connect any phone with any service network. Though the cellular market has become more inclusive in recent years, most carriers only offer a select few makes and models of mobile phones.

From the factory, these phones are locked to specific software that allows the phone to connect with specific carriers, with the exception of phones that advertise themselves as unlocked such as the Google Android Nexus series of phones.

Therefore, most users must choose their device from a restrictive list of sanctioned options ― or they can get any phone they want and unlock it themselves to access any network.

How Do You Unlock a Phone?

The process of unlocking can be complicated, and the necessary steps depend entirely on the phone and its intended network. SIM unlocking, which is also called network unlocking, is the most common unlocking action. Phone manufacturers build multiple carrier capabilities into their phones, but carriers themselves prevent regular users from accessing them.

You will need a particular code, which you can purchase for a reasonable price from Unlock-Network, to bypass the network lock and gain network freedom. Oddly enough, SIM-locked phones are almost exclusive to the U.S.; in other parts of the world, phone users are free to exchange SIM cards from different carriers without a hassle.


Meanwhile, to modify a phone’s software, you must unlock its bootloader, which is the program that jumpstarts the operating system when you turn your phone on. The bootloader has a few other jobs, as well, which are integral to the safe and secure use of your phone. Therefore, unless you are experienced in tinkering with tech, unlocking is not something you should attempt on your own.

Most bootloaders are heavily encrypted and require complicated schemes to overcome, so if you don’t understand what you are doing, you could irreparably harm your phone’s functionality by attempting to unlock it yourself.

Is Unlocking Illegal?

If you ask almost anyone in the tech industry about unlocking phones, they will excitedly tell you it is a very good thing. After all, you purchased your phone, which means it is your property to do what you wish. Most manufacturers agree: As long as you are comfortable voiding their warranty, you can do pretty much anything without incurring their wrath.

However, phone networks usually see the issue differently, and they have attempted to restrict unlocking with legal action. This year, wireless carriers gained the backing of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to cut down on the resale of unlocked digital devices.

The DMCA has been around since the late ‘90s to protect digital locks on copyrighted creative works like movies, music, games, and software, so pirates would have a harder time profiting from digital theft. Yet, the wording of the DMCA seems to include digital devices, as well. For several years, the U.S. Copyright Office and the Library of Congress exempted mobile phones, but those exemptions expired in January, and there is little hope they will be reinstated.

Still, the laws are ambiguous at best. Experts expect carriers to ignore individual instances of phone unlocking ― respecting people’s personal property ― but networks will probably crack down on businesses that sell unlocked phones (not codes, but actual devices).

Courts have yet to tackle the protections of the DMCA when it comes to unlocking phones; if the carriers win, businesses may incur severe penalties, including jail time.

For now, you are probably safe to do what you want with your own property, but if you want true freedom, you can support the Electronic Frontier Foundation in their fight against the DMCA and digital property restrictions.

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