A Tech News Daily note, mentioned by MacRumors, says that a new federal policy for the United States has gone into effect (as of Saturday), making it illegal for some mobile phone owners to unlock their devices for use on other carriers. Unless authorized to do so by the carrier, those who violate this could face criminal charges.
The change in policy comes after a 90-day window started in October of 2012 closed on January 26. The Librarian of Congress can determine exemptions from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) – a controversial law that provides copyright protections and other rights management laws – and the Librarian has rescinded the exemption for newly-purchased mobile devices under the law.
The exemption was enacted to allay concerns that consumers who purchase devices would lose the ability to control their own devices by no longer being able to choose a carrier freely. The Librarian says that because the major carriers have all enacted policies that allow either the purchase of unsubsidized devices that are unlocked or allow unlocking after a specific contract period, the exemption was no longer necessary and has been closed.
The Federal Register outlined it as:
The Register concluded after a review of the statutory factors that an exemption to the prohibition on circumvention of mobile phone computer programs to permit users to unlock “legacy” phones is both warranted and unlikely to harm the market for such programs. At the same time, in light of carriers’ current unlocking policies and the ready availability of new unlocked phones in the marketplace, the record did not support an exemption for newly purchased phones. Looking to precedents in copyright law, the Register recommended that the class designated by the Librarian include a 90-day transitional period to allow unlocking by those who may acquire phones shortly after the new exemption goes into effect.
Some carriers already forbid the unlocking of devices purchased under contract, but the new law now makes it a criminal rather than civil matter. The policy change will likely mean that services which sell unlocking software or services to consumers are now going to go out of business.