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'Jailbreaking' iPhones and unlocking carrier restrictions legal, government says

July 26, 2010 |  2:18 pm

Iphone-coppertone Circumventing Apple's safeguards in order to install unapproved applications on the iPhone is called "jailbreaking," but doing so won't get you landed in the slammer, according to new government rules announced Monday.

While some use the practice for deploying rogue apps or for accessing advanced customization settings, others jailbreak their phones so that they can be used on other carriers.

Unlocking, say, the iPhone's ties to AT&T has also been determined to be legal, thanks to these rules. In spite of prior ambiguity, the practice was fairly commonplace. T-Mobile USA had activated so many iPhones that the wireless provider began offering technical support for the device.

The Copyright Office set several exemptions for a 1998 federal law prohibiting gadget owners from bypassing technical locks companies use to protect products from unauthorized uses. The Library of Congress, which oversees the Copyright Office, conducts the review process every three years.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation had urged the government to review these issues. In a response last year, Apple issued a statement arguing why jailbreaking its phones should remain illegal.

The new rules also negate any potential legal arguments from Motorola, Samsung or their companion carriers in response to attempts at prying open software on their phones. For example, the operating system on Motorola's Droid X cannot be altered, and Samsung's Captivate can install apps only from the Google and AT&T Marketplace.

Although cutting through manufacturers' security measures is now legal, such a move would still violate product warranties set by many companies. So if an iPhone locks down after it has been jailbroken -- "bricking," as it's called -- Apple doesn't have to repair it or provide technical support.

"Apple's goal has always been to ensure that our customers have a great experience with their iPhone and we know that jailbreaking can severely degrade the experience," Apple spokeswoman Natalie Harrison said in an e-mail. "As we've said before, the vast majority of customers do not jailbreak their iPhones, as this can violate the warranty and can cause the iPhone to become unstable and not work reliably."

About 4 million iPhone and iPod Touch units had been jailbroken as of last August, and were accessing apps from a sort of black-market storefront called Cydia, the marketplace's founder told Wired. The store is a safe haven for many developers that Apple, the gatekeeper to its App Store, has ignored or turned away.

Google, which produces a competing smart-phone platform called Android, was one victim of Apple's sometimes ambiguous and much lambasted regulation over the App Store.

The Cupertino, Calif., iPhone maker had to respond to an inquiry from the Federal Communications Commission last year regarding why its store would not carry an app called Google Voice. The program lets users reroute phone calls and voice mail through Google's system for perks such as cheaper international call rates and voice-mail transcription. A similar app, not made by Google, that interfaces with the Voice service is for sale through Cydia.

Apple Chief Steve Jobs' retort: 95% of the 15,000 apps submitted per week are approved within a week.

The new federal exemptions also apply to video games, allowing players to break measures to investigate or fix security flaws. Additionally, educators can circumvent copy-protection on DVDs for noncommercial purposes; computer owners may bypass security dongles when they break and cannot be replaced; and blind people may break digital locks on e-books to access read-aloud software.

-- Mark Milian
twitter.com/markmilian

Photo credit: Associated Press

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