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Unlocking cellphones no longer allowed

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By Bloomberg News
Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Starting today, consumers won't be allowed to unlock new mobile phones purchased from wireless providers under a change in rules backed by carriers led by Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc.

The Library of Congress' Copyright Office, as part of a periodic review, said altering software to let one carrier's phones work on other networks won't be among activities that are expressly permitted under copyright law. The rule change was announced in October.

CTIA-The Wireless Association, with members including the country's four largest mobile carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint Nextel Corp. and T-Mobile USA Inc. — had argued that “locking cell phones is an essential part of the wireless industry's dominant business model” involving handset subsidies and contracts, Librarian of Congress James Billington said in the notice.

Consumers still can choose to buy unlocked phones that will work with multiple carriers, giving them an alternative, Billington said.

Partly because of that possibility, unlocking newly purchased phones doesn't merit an exemption under copyright law, he said. Consumers who bought phones before the change can unlock their handsets, according to the rule change.

The new restriction represents a misuse of copyright law, said Sherwin Siy, a vice president with the Washington-based policy group Public Knowledge.

“It wasn't made to make it harder for people to switch phone companies,” Siy said.

The change removes legal protection that has allowed consumers to unlock their phones and doesn't explicitly make the act illegal, Mitch Stoltz, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, said in an interview.

“You will not have this shield in the event you're sued,” Stoltz said. “It may go to court some time, and then it will be up to a judge.”

CTIA said in a filing with Library of Congress that subsidies “depend on ensuring that the handset will be used, as contemplated, with the carrier's service.”

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