Mobile Phone Unlocking, Now Less Illegal?

On Friday, President Obama signed a mobile phone unlocking bill into law. Some observers have taken to describing S. 517, the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, as a permission slip for consumers. Here’s a sample:

The New York Times: “you will no longer be breaking the law if you unlock your cellphone”
The Los Angeles Times: “makes it legal once again for consumers to unlock their cellphones”
CNET: “makes unlocking a cell phone legal again”

Those explanations aren’t quite accurate. The new law (temporarily) shields consumers from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It is, by design, a narrow fix; it expressly leaves other sources of legal liability untouched.

“. . . nothing in this Act shall be construed to alter the scope of any party’s rights under existing law.”

Contract law certainly still applies. If you have agreed with your carrier that you will not unlock your phone, that promise remains legally binding and enforceable. Here’s what the AT&T service contract says, for example:

You agree that you won’t make any modifications to your Equipment or its programming to enable the Equipment to operate on any other system.

Computer abuse law is another potential source of liability. Wireless services have previously targeted mobile phone resellers with federal and state anti-hacking statutes. In 2012 alone, cell carriers filed over a dozen Computer Fraud and Abuse Act unlocking lawsuits.

So, what exactly has changed? Last week’s law is unambiguously a big political win for consumers. The winds have plainly shifted towards greater control over personal devices.

Last week’s law is, however, only a partial legal win for consumers. There remain civil and criminal legal risks associated with unauthorized cell phone unlocking.

Disclaimer: I am not your lawyer, and this is not legal advice.