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Unlock Your Cell Phone, Face Prosecution

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Unlock your cell phone -  that is, free your mobile phone to work on other carriers’ networks - and you could be prosecuted for it, under a new federal rule.

The Library of Congress, which implements laws relating to copyright, has decided that carriers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have to give permission if a customer wants to unlock a phone bought under contract. Customers often unlock phones to use cheaper carriers or to sell to a buyer outside their mobile network.

Sina Khanifar of San Francisco is campaigning to overturn the rule.

"For anyone who unlocks their phone or anyone who's providing unlocking services online, the carriers can come after them," Khanifar says about the new rule. "They can be sued and they can face up to five years in jail per incident. The penalty doesn't match the crime by any means."

Khanifar launched a petition on WhiteHouse.gov. He's got just over half of the 100,000 signatures needed to get a response from the Oval Office.

Khanifar himself used to unlock cell phones for a living. He says a phone should be like a car -- yours to use, change or sell as you please.

The CTIA, a trade group for wireless providers, counters in a blog post supporting the new rule that a cell phone under contract is more like a car with an outstanding loan. "The finance company has to be paid before the owner can transfer the title to the purchaser."

The rule change is already affecting business owners like Gary Tan. Tan, who runs DE iPhone Repair in the Marina, says,  "I'm starting to see a decline of people already."

Tan says the ban hurts tech entrepreneurs in particular, especially if they work abroad. "They have different offices in different countries. So they need an iPhone to work and be unlockable. Now they can't do that."
         
Tan says he's stopped unlocking any phone purchased after the rule took effect on January 26.
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