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

Android

The dramatic BlackBerry Key2 Red Edition is now available in the U.S.

BlackBerry's Key2 is likely to be the best keyboard-equipped phone in 2019, with a modern look, some powerful specs, and totally revamped features. Here's everything you need to know about it.
Mobile

Samsung Galaxy S10 update gives manual control of Bright Night mode

Samsung 2019 flagship smartphone lineup is here, and there aren't just two phones as usual — there are four. There's the Galaxy S10, S10 Plus, as well as a new entry called the S10e, as well as the Galaxy S10 5G.
Trash

Smash your carrier shackles with the best unlocked phones

If you want the freedom to switch carriers at will or you prefer to get your phone directly from the company that makes it, you'll want to buy an unlocked smartphone. These are the best unlocked phones you can buy in the U.S.
Mobile

Breaking news: Samsung responds to reported Galaxy Fold display issues

The Samsung Galaxy Fold has arrived, and it goes on sale soon. Folding out from a 4.6-inch display to a tablet-sized 7.3-inch display, this unique device has six cameras, two batteries, and special software to help you use multiple apps.
Mobile

The Samsung Galaxy Fold won’t sell unlocked, but here’s where it’s available

The Samsung Galaxy Fold boasts top-tier specs in a groundbreaking and unique design, and as such it makes sense that you might want to get the phone for yourself. Here are all the places you can get the Galaxy Fold for yourself.
Computing

Want to make calls across the internet for less? Try these great VOIP services

Voice over IP services are getting more and more popular, but there are still a few that stand above the pack. In this guide, we'll give you a few options for the best VOIP services for home and business users.
Deals

Apple iPads and iPad Pros get price cuts up to $150 on Amazon

In the market for a new iPad? Now might be the time to buy -- Amazon has discounted a range of iPad models, including the 10.5-inch, 11-inch, and 12.9-inch iPad Pro models, plus the standard iPad.
Mobile

The Best iPhone 7 battery cases to give your phone some extra juice

The iPhone 7 doesn't have terrible battery life, but you never know when you'll need to juice up on the go. To help, here are the best iPhone 7 battery cases that can keep your smartphone charged and ready for long-term use.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Samsung Galaxy Fold woes, zombie pigs, and more

Today's topics: Samsung Galaxy Fold, Facebook A.I. voice assistants, YouTube comes to Fire TV, facial recognition on airline flights, the SpaceX DART program, Yale's zombie pigs, and much more!
Deals

The excellent Moto G6 is just $99 from Google Fi for a limited time

Getting a cheap smartphone can be a great way to squeeze value out of your dollars. Motorola's Moto G-range has always been good value, but never better than this: Get the Moto G6 for just $99 from Google Fi.
Mobile

Keep your huge phone beautiful with the best iPhone XS Max cases

Apple's iPhone XS Max might be the best large phone the company has ever released. But a bigger OLED display and body means there's more glass to crack. Keep your massive phone safe with the best iPhone XS Max cases.
Deals

Ultra Wideband is here, and you can use it with the 5G Moto Mod (and save $150)

5G is rolling out in the U.S., and Motorola’s Moto Z3 is one of the few phones that can use it. Select people can take advantage of Verizon’s 5G service and enjoy a $150 discount with the purchase of a Moto Z3 and 5G Moto Mod bundle.
Deals

The best Amazon Prime Day 2019 deals: Everything you need to know

Amazon Prime Day 2019 is still a few months off, but it's never too early to start preparing. We've been taking a look at the best discounts from previous Prime Days to give you our predictions of what to expect this year.
Mobile

The 15 most stylish iPhone docks and charging stands for your device

The right iPhone dock does more than just hold your phone. If you’re looking for the perfect dock for your bedroom, or one to sit discretely on your office desk, there’s a good chance you’ll find it here.