Unlocking, rooting, and jailbreaking: What you need to know

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Have you ever wanted to install a new operating system on your phone or tablet, switch service providers, or wondered why you can only choose from a limited variety of official software?

Well, in many cases it’s possible to do these things with enough knowledge or a good tutorial. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of confusion on what exactly is legal and what you can do.

While the two terms are often confused, unlocking normally refers to changing a cell phone’s network, rooting refers to gaining root access to your device, (typically used for android devices) and jailbreaking refers to removing manufacturer restrictions to install software (typically used on iOS devices).

Rooting can allow you to install your own operating system, carrier-blocked apps, custom apps, or even to uninstall stock software. Jailbreaking doesn’t give as much freedom but can still allow you to install custom apps, such as emulators or custom themes. Rooting and jailbreaking is currently legal only for phones and almost certainly will violate warranty.

Unlocking a cell phone allows you to use it on an alternative network. In the case of GSM (Global System for Mobiles) phones you can typically enter a code to unlock them, then swap SIM cards, while CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) phones must be reprogrammed.

Unlocking has gone through several stages of legality; it was originally made legal under an exemption in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but in 2012 made temporarily illegal when the exemptions were updated.

According to Digital Trends, the justification was because it required changing of the phone’s firmware which violated the DMCA. Last year, President Obama signed the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act which again made it legal to unlock phones after receiving a petition on the White House’s “We The People” website.

According the FCC’s website, as of Feb. 11 this year, carriers were required to follow several new rules on unlocking. They must post a clear unlocking policy on their website. Carriers must unlock or provide information on how to unlock wireless devices that have fulfilled their contracts.

Prepaid carriers must unlock their devices within one year of activation. Carriers that lock their devices must notify customers when their devices are eligible for unlocking or automatically unlock them. Carriers must also respond within two days and unlock devices for deployed military personnel.

Interestingly, under the same 2012 revision that made unlocking phones illegal, rooting and jailbreaking were made legal for smartphones as an exemption to the DMCA but jailbreaking or rooting tablets, e-readers or game consoles is illegal. The DMCA exemptions are updated every three years, so the next three years’ are currently being decided.

On May 19, a hearing was held proposing the coming exemptions to the DMCA in which members of Digital Age Defense and the Electronic Frontier Foundation among others proposed exemptions for jailbreaking mobile devices, game systems, smart TVs, and other devices.

Since the exemptions still haven’t been decided, it’s uncertain what the coming laws for rooting and jailbreaking will be.