It can be easy to get “unlocking” and “jailbreaking” confused, but the two terms mean totally different things. Unlocking refers to freeing your phone to work on any carrier instead of just the one you bought it on. Jailbreaking is the process of circumventing Apple’s security measures in iOS to install tweaks, hacks, and mods that aren’t allowed in the App Store.
The U.S. Library of Congress has ruled that it is now illegal for you to unlock your smartphone if it was bought after January 26th, 2013. Carriers can still legally unlock your device for you, but it’s illegal to go through a third-party unlock vendor.
Jailbreaking your iPhone has been kept legal through 2015 under an exemption in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The crazy catch is that jailbreaking the iPad has technically been made illegal, while the iPhone and iPod touch both remain exempt. So jailbreaking is safe mostly, but unofficial unlocking is not. This is important to mention as the iOS 6.1 jailbreak approaches.
Keeping up with the U.S. legal system is very confusing, so what does all this unlocking and jailbreaking legal jargon mean for you?
“You’ll probably start seeing unlock vendors close up shop”
Unlocking has historically been a grey area for the U.S. government. Third-party companies have been making money selling cheap unlocks for smartphones without the carriers’ permission, and carriers don’t want customers unlocking their devices on the side. That means savvy customers could just switch service providers while they’re still under contract.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) weighed in on the DMCA’s recent banning of unofficial unlocking in a new blog post today:
While we don’t expect mass lawsuits anytime soon, the threat still looms. More likely, wireless carriers, or even federal prosecutors, will be emboldened to sue not individuals, but rather businesses that unlock and resell phones. If a court rules in favor of the carriers, penalties can be stiff – up to $2,500 per unlocked phone in a civil suit, and $500,000 or five years in prison in a criminal case where the unlocking is done for “commercial advantage.” And this could happen even for phones that are no longer under contract. So we’re really not free to do as we want with devices that we own.
Entities like ChronicUnlocks make good money selling unlocks on the cheap, and they work. ChronicUnlocks is perhaps the most legitimate third-party service, and it is currently not unlocking smartphones that were bought after the DMCA’s ruling went into effect last weekend. That’s a small group right now, but it will encompass many more people as new phones keep coming out.
While you won’t probably get sued for unlocking the iPhone you bought in 2013, you’ll probably start seeing unlock vendors close up shop. Or at least fade away. The Library of Congress won’t review the DMCA again until 2014, but there’s an online petition you can sign asking the White House to rescind the decision.
Safe To Jailbreak
Jailbreaking the iPhone is totally legal still, which has never really been an issue in the past. There hasn’t been one notable U.S. lawsuit related to jailbreaking, so you don’t need to worry about the feds crashing through your door for installing Cydia. And the specific update to the legality of the iPad is really a non-issue. There hasn’t been a court case to specifically enforce a ban on any form of jailbreaking. It’s all up to the interpretation of the courts if someone decided to prosecute.
“keep calm and carry on”
“While a DMCA exemption is nice and all to tip the legal scales even more in favor of the jailbreakers, I don’t think they’re critical to the legality of jailbreaking,” said renowned jailbreak hacker David Wang (@planetbeing) in an email. Wang is currently working to release the public jailbreak for iOS 6.1. “I think jailbreaking is legal, with or without the DMCA exemption, so the lack of it does not significantly impact us, the people who develop jailbreak tools,” said Wang.
Jailbreaking your iOS device on your computer at home is totally safe. Some try to sell jailbreaking services on sites like Craigslist, and that could cause issues if iPads are involved. But there has been nothing in the history of jailbreaking to warrant concern at this point. Do as the British do: keep calm and carry on.