What happens if you unlock your smartphone now that it’s illegal?

What happens if you illegally unlock your smartphone

On Saturday, unlocking new cell phones that have been locked down by wireless carriers officially became illegal. The decision from the U.S. Copyright Office and the Librarian of Congress to delete phone unlocking from the list of exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) sparked a wave of consumer criticism, and left people wondering: What now? We’ve already covered the main questions concerning the new no-unlock rule, like which phone are illegal to unlock, but there are some things that still need to be addressed. Here, we’ll clear up some of the lingering key questions.

Will I go to jail if I unlock my new smartphone?

No – at least, not if you only unlock your own device. The DMCA specifies two different levels of penalties for violations: civil and criminal. Unlocking your own device for personal use would fall firmly in the civil category, which means you couldn’t go to jail for doing it, but could definitely get sued by your wireless carrier.

If I get sued, what’s the worst that could happen?

You would have to pay “damages” to your wireless carrier (plus any legal fees that might go along with a lawsuit).

Section 1203 of the DMCA (PDF) stipulates that “a complaining party may elect to recover an award of statutory damages for each violation … in the sum of not less than $200 or more than $2,500 per act …” That means you could be sued for a minimum of $200 for each device that you’ve unlocked, with possible damages shooting up to $2,500 per device.

That said, experts on the DMCA don’t expect individuals to face many lawsuits over small-scale unlocking. And it’s possible that, were you to be sued over unlocking, the court may rule that the DMCA shouldn’t protect against consumers unlocking their devices.

What if I unlock my device and then sell it?

This is where things get more complicated. If, for example, you buy an iPhone 5 from AT&T for the subsidized price of $200, unlock it, then sell it for $650 (the going rate for a new, unlocked 16GB iPhone 5), AT&T could theoretically sue you for $450 in damages – but it’s also possible that unlocking your device to make money would push you into “criminal” territory.

Section 1204 of the DMCA (PDF) makes it a “criminal offense” to “willfully” circumvent any digital locks – this includes DRM on movies or music and the firmware that locks your smartphone – “for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain.” Do so, and you’re looking at a fine of up to $500,000, or up to five years in prison, or both, for a first-time offense. Repeat offenders see the consequences double to a maximum fine of $1 million, up to 10 years in prison, or both.

So unlocking a phone you bought from AT&T (or any other wireless carrier) on the cheap for the purpose of making some cash is now decidedly a bad idea.

Would I really be put in jail for selling a single unlocked phone?

Not likely. The real purpose of targeting phone unlocking is to go after “large-scale” sellers of illegally unlocked devices. According to Mike Altschul, the senior vice president and general counsel of CTIA, the wireless industry’s lobbying arm, the no-unlock rule “makes our streets just a little bit safer by making it harder for large scale phone trafficking operations to operate in the open and buy large quantities of phones, unlock them and resell them in foreign markets where carriers do not offer subsidized handsets.”

In short, you’re probably not in any danger of going to jail, even if you do pawn your illegally unlocked handset on Craigslist. But that shady electronics store that sells unlocked phones might be, as are companies who sell phone unlock codes. Still, it’s best to just buy a legally unlocked device in the first place.

Is there any way to get rid of this unlock rule?

Not quickly or easily. One possible scenario is that a court will rule that cell phone owners are not in violation of the DMCA, if they unlock their device for personal use. There is also a White House petition that is gaining ground, which would require the Obama administration to review the unlock rule, if it reaches the 100,000 signature threshold. (Even if it gets enough signatures, that doesn’t mean anything will change.)

And finally, we can just wait. The Librarian of Congress will begin reconsidering exemptions to the DMCA again starting in 2014, and the new exemptions will come out in 2015.

Image via Matt Valentine/Shutterstock

Business

Apple loses battle to use Intel modems in Germany in latest clash with Qualcomm

Apple is following the Federal Trade Commission's lead and has sued Qualcomm for a massive $1 billion in the U.S., $145 million in China, and also in the U.K., claiming the company charged onerous royalties for its patented tech.
Mobile

AT&T adds Minneapolis and Chicago to its mobile 5G road map for 2019

Ready to experience a radical transformation in mobile communication? AT&T is launching mobile 5G in cities across the country over the next few months. Here's everything you need to know about the AT&T 5G rollout.
Mobile

You can now get Google Fi SIM cards straight from Best Buy

Google's wireless service known as Project Fi, now goes by the name of Google Fi. The company also announced the service is now compatible with a majority of Android phones, as well as iPhones. Here's everything you need to know about…
Mobile

Forgot your Android password or PIN? Here’s what you need to do

It’s a horrible feeling when you forget your Android password, PIN, or pattern and can’t access your smartphone. Thankfully, there are some things you can do to gain access to your device. Find out what your options are right here.
Mobile

Happy Valentine’s Day! Coffee Meets Bagel dating app data may have been breached

Are you planning on using Coffee Meets Bagel to find love on Valentine's Day? If you've been using the app for a while, you'll probably want to change your password -- the company said a data breach may have taken place before May 2018.
Mobile

Worried about extra data charges? Here's how to check your usage on an iPhone

It's common to get a little nervous about nearing data limits. Keep your peace of mind by checking how much data your iPhone is using. Our guide on how to check data usage on an iPhone helps you stay in control.
Mobile

Exclusive: Take a look at what a next-generation 5G phone will look like

With 5G phones debuting at MWC in mere days, there is discussion about whether they will be clunky bricks that die after a few hours? A reference design from Qualcomm offerrs a glimpse of the future: This is what 5G phones will look like.
Mobile

North Focals smartglasses discount cuts the price by a massive $400

Canadian startup North is hoping smartglasses will be the next big wearable. After announcing its new Focals smartglasses in late 2018, the company opened product showrooms in Brooklyn and Toronto and has made its first shipment.
Mobile

New Apple patent hints clamshell-style foldable phone may be in the works

Apple has filed a patent for a foldable phone that suggests the company could be following in the footsteps of the likes of Samsung and Huawei. The patent describes a clamshell-style foldable phone with two separate sections.
Mobile

Xiaomi Mi 9 will be one of the first phones with monster Snapdragon 855 chip

Xiaomi's next major smartphone release will be the Mi 9, and the company hasn't held back in giving us a good look at the phone, revealing the design, the camera, and a stunning color.
Wearables

Galaxy Watch Active isn't official yet, but you can see it in Samsung's own app

Samsung may be about to resurrect its Sport line of smartwatches under a new name: The Galaxy Watch Sport Active. Leaks and rumors are building our picture of the device at the moment.
Mobile

Stop buying old tablets, says Samsung, buy the new Galaxy Tab S5e instead

Samsung has launched the Galaxy Tab S5e -- the E is for Essential -- a reasonably priced tablet that includes many of the features we like from the Tab A 10.5, and the Tab S4. Here's what you need to know.
Mobile

Bag yourself a bargain with the best budget tablets under $200

The battle for your budget tablet affections is really ramping up. Which tablet, costing less than $200, should be commanding your attention? We take a look at some different options for the budget-conscious.
Computing

What is Wi-Fi 6? Here's a look at the next evolution of the wireless standard

We're exploring the new naming convention for wireless standards, how it affects the devices you buy, and what the upcoming Wi-Fi generation is changing for the better.