Advocates want iPhone 'jailbreaking' to stay legal
Jailbreaking lets users change carriers or download apps not in the Apple store
Groups also want a legal exemption added for iPads, video game consoles
Fresh from a victory that saw a pair of online-piracy bills shelved, Web-freedom advocates are now fighting to preserve their right to jailbreak their iPhones.
The Electronic Freedom Foundation, a key player in the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act, is urging people to ask the U.S. government to declare that hacking their own smartphone, tablet or other device is not a crime.
“Smartphones, tablets, and video game consoles are powerful computers with lots of untapped potential,” the group says on its website. “Yet many of these devices are set up to run only software that’s been approved by the manufacturer.
“Modifying a device to run independent software – known as jailbreaking – is important to programmers, enthusiasts, and users.”
“Jailbreaking” a phone gives users the ability to download unauthorized apps from any source. It’s particularly popular on iPhones because of Apple’s famously closed environment, which only allows apps bought from its own stores to be used on the phones.
Jailbreaking also allows an owner to unlock their phone and switch mobile carriers. Apple’s phones, and its iPads, typically come with an exclusive contract with a mobile provider (originally only AT&T in the United States, although Verizon and Sprint versions have been added).
In July 2010, the U.S. Copyright Office issued a ruling that exempted jailbreaking from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) – the same law used last week to shut down file-sharing site MegaUpload.
Under DCMA, Apple had the right to request a $2,500 government fine for “circumvention of technological measures.” That could be interpreted to extend to jailbreaking, since the iPhone’s iOS software is copyrighted.
Apple had never actually fined one of its customers, but maintained its right to do so and filed an objection to the copyright office’s ruling while it was in the planning stages.
The EFF is asking the copyright office to extend the 2010 exemption, which will otherwise expire this year, and add tablets like the iPad to it. They’re also asking for a specific exemption for video-game consoles.
The group is specifically asking “people who depend on the ability to jailbreak to write, use, and/or tinker with independent software (from useful apps to essential security fixes)” to contact the office.
The Software Freedom Law Center, another group working on the issue, is asking that exemptions be extended to all personal computing devices.
“People must have the right to control the software running on devices they own,” said Aaron Williamson, a lawyer with the group. “That right is essential to the continued development of free and open source software and is foundational to our privacy, security, and freedom, online and off.”
Apple did not respond to a request for a comment for this story.
In the past, the company has said that jailbreaking, which voids an iPhone’s warranty, can introduce bugs and other problems.
“Apple’s goal has always been to insure that our customers have a great experience with their iPhone, and we know that jailbreaking can severely degrade the experience,” a company spokeswoman said in response to the Copyright Office ruling in 2010. “The vast majority of customers do not jailbreak their iPhones.”