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New law bans unlocking your smartphone

Starting tomorrow, it will be illegal to unlock your phone. Unless you get express permission from your carrier, you’ll have to play by their rules.

The law was passed in October, but won’t take effect until this Saturday. The law is actually an addition to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The law states that “with respect to new wireless handsets, there are ample alternatives to circumvention. That is, the marketplace has evolved such that there is now a wide array of unlocked phone options available to consumers. While it is true that not every wireless device is available unlocked, and wireless carriers' unlocking polices are not free from all restrictions, the record clearly demonstrates that there is a wide range of alternatives from which consumers may choose in order to obtain an unlocked wireless phone.”

So instead of messing with the phone you have, you’ll have to just buy a cooler phone.

“With respect to newly purchased phones,” the Copyright Office concluded, “proponents had not satisfied their burden of showing adverse effects related to a technological protection measure."

The reason the law is just going into effect now is because the Office gave consumers a ninety day grace period (starting Oct. 28, 2012) to unlock their phones without carrier permission. The grace period "is both warranted and unlikely to harm the market," the office concluded.

In making the law, the Copyright Office weighed both sides of the argument.

“Proponents noted that ‘huge numbers’ of people have already unlocked their phones under the 2006 and 2010 exemptions and claimed that ending the exemption will lead to higher device prices for consumers, increased electronic waste, higher costs associated with switching service providers, and widespread mobile customer ‘lock-in,’” the Office wrote. “Although proponents acknowledged that unlocked mobile devices are widely available for purchase, they contended that an exemption is still warranted because some devices sold by carriers are permanently locked and because unlocking policies contain restrictions and may not apply to all of a carrier's devices.”

In the end, though, the big cellphone carriers won out, claiming unlocked phones hurt business.

“[The carriers] explained that the practice of locking cell phones is an essential part of the wireless industry's predominant business model, which involves subsidizing the cost of wireless handsets in exchange for a commitment from the customer that the phone will be used on that carrier's service so that the subsidy can eventually be recouped by the carrier,” the Office concluded.

“[They] alleged that the industry has been plagued by ‘large scale phone trafficking operations’ that buy large quantities of pre-paid phones, unlock them, and resell them in foreign markets where carriers do not subsidize handsets.”