As of Saturday, your options for owning an unlocked phone become far more limited. You can ask your carrier to unlock it—and good luck with that—or you can pay a premium to manufacturers like Apple or Google for a new unlocked phone. You just can’t unlock your phone yourself—at least, not legally.
That decision was made not by voters, the courts, or even Congress. It was made by one man, 83-year-old Congressional Librarian James Hadley Billington, who is responsible for interpreting the meaning of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Billington decided last October that unlocking your phone yourself is a violation of the Act, which was originally written to prevent digital piracy.
In the United States cell phones are usually sold locked to one network. Unlocking a phone involves entering a code, or running software to unlock it. It can then be used on another network with the same technology. In the U.S. this mostly just means using a T-Mobile phone on ATT or vice versa. Before you travel overseas you can unlock a phone then use a local SIM card to avoid expensive international roaming.
Now because of a decision made by a single unelected bureaucrat, it is now illegal to unlock your phone without the permission of your phone company, the punishment a fine up to $500,000. The purpose of the DMCA law is to prevent piracy. I'm sure lobbiests for the phone companies made a compelling argument that confused this old man.
Why are the phone companies worried about people unlocking their phones now?
From the end of the article, it may be because all the carriers are moving to the same 4G technology:
Hays says that when LTE phones become more common, the issue of unlocking becomes even more important. Today, when you unlock an AT&T (GSM) phone, your only real option is to go to T-Mobile, which uses the same cellular technology. But when all carriers have converted over to the new LTE networks, the owner of an unlocked LTE phone has a choice of four major carriers and a number of regional ones.Please sign this White House petition. Currently its half way to the 100,000 signatures needed to get a White House response. A week before the petition was posted they raised the threshold to get a response from 25,000 to 100,000.
Hays says the carriers may have worked hard to get an unlocking ban to protect themselves against widespread unlocking and massive “churn” in the (LTE) future.