Jailbreak, root, unlock – how it works now, legally speaking

January 29, 2013
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A few days ago we told you that starting January 26, 2013, you won’t be able to unlock your smartphone from the shackles of your carrier, at least not legally, but we also showed you a petition asking the White House to intervene in the matter.

While we wait for more answers regarding carrier unlocks, here’s what you should know about it, legally speaking, especially if you own an Android device and you like doing custom stuff to it.

The EFF, which is short for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has posted up an explanation of what jailbreaking, rooting and unlocking means starting with January 26. As expected, there’s good news and bad news involved, so depending on what you want to do with your Android device you’ll be either very happy or very annoyed.

Jailbreaking and rooting

When it comes to jailbreaking and rooting smart devices, this stuff is still legal at least until 2015. That means you can root Android handsets, or jailbreak iOS devices, without having to worry about what could happen to you, from a legal stand point. Sure, we won’t encourage you to perform such procedure, no matter how well-versed you are in performing such tricks, but you have the right to do what you please with your device.

While these procedures won’t get you in trouble with the law, they may still void you warranty with the retailer and/or maker of the device you’re jailbreaking / rooting, so make sure you pay attention to the fine print before going through with such tricks.

Unlocking

Jailbreaking / rooting will let you install custom software on your handset, bypassing the locks in place set by the manufacturer and is not to be confused with unlocking the handset to be used with a different mobile operator.

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You may want to unlock a smartphone either to use it on a different network or to sell it for a profit. Smartphones are usually locked to a carrier when said carrier sells them for subsidized prices, which means a contract is involved. The smartphone costs less money upfront, but you’re stuck in a 1-, 2- or 3-year contract, depending on country, during which time you’ll pay the full price of the handset and then some. At the end of the contract – or during it – you can ask the carrier to unlock the handset, and there may be fees involved. Or you could do it yourself if you know how to do it, and especially if it’s legal.

As of January 26, you won’t be able to unlock devices without the carrier’s permission not even after the contractual period is over, at least in the U.S., which is why plenty of you will be annoyed with the situation.

As the EFF puts it, it’s not likely that carrier will go after individuals for unlocking their devices – yes, we don’t encourage you to do that either – but they may go after businesses that sell unlocked devices and/or are involved in unlocking procedures:

Now, the bad news. 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.

This may change later down the road, with the next round of exemptions set to start in late 2014, so by then you’ll have to pay extra attention to what you put your handset through.

Remember then: jailbreaking and rooting are safe, legally speaking, while unlocking isn’t.

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