It was big news last week when it became illegal to unlock your smartphone. Almost lost in to hoopla was something just as important: it's also now illegal to jailbreak or root a new tablet.
Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the Librarian of Congress (LoC) has the right to decide which types of devices users can legally modify without their manufacturers' permission. In the fall, the LoC decided that making significant changes to the operating system of a tablet is not to be permitted.
An exception was made for smartphones. This means it is legal to root or jailbreak a phone, but not a tablet. It is illegal to unlock any of these devices.
Why are smartphones excepted but not tablets? According to a statement from the LoC, James Hadley Billington, his office "found significant merit to the opposition's concerns that this aspect of the proposed class was broad and ill-defined, as a wide range of devices might be considered 'tablets,' notwithstanding the significant distinctions among them in terms of the way they operate, their intended purposes, and the nature of the applications they can accommodate. For example, an e-book reading device might be considered a 'tablet', as might a handheld video game device or a laptop computer."
Because of this decision, any tablet bought after January 26, 2013 may not be legally rooted or jailbroken. It is still legal to do so on devices bought before then.
Jailbreaking vs. Rooting vs. Unlocking
Although there is a community of experts that does it all the time, it is fairly rare these days for the average person to jailbreak or root their mobile devices, and many are probably not even aware that such a thing is possible, so a brief description of these are is probably in order.
Both the iOS and Android operating systems come with limitations on what the user can do. The most notable of these is restrictions on what types of applications can be installed and run. It's posible to get around these restrictions.
Those with an iPad who want to install apps that haven't been approved by Apple will need to jailbreak the device. For example, adding support for a mouse to the iPad requires jailbreaking it.
Rooting an Android tablet isn't exactly the same thing, but it's close enough for this discussion, as it enlarges the number and types of apps that can be installed on the device.
Unlocking, on the other hand, is something quite different. Tablets that can access cellular-wireless networks are often set so they can only access the network of a particular telecom, like AT&T or Verizon. An unlocked device can be used with any carrier, as long as the user has an appropriate SIM card and the tablet has the necessary equipment.
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