From the most recent statement of the Librarian of Congress of the United States:
Today I have designated six classes of works. Persons who circumvent access controls in order to engage in noninfringing uses of works in these six classes will not be subject to the statutory prohibition against circumvention…
The six classes of works [include]…
Computer programs that enable wireless telephone handsets to execute software applications, where circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of enabling interoperability of such applications, when they have been lawfully obtained, with computer programs on the telephone handset…
In English, please?
In essence, this legalizes the practice of “jailbreaking” your iPhone. Jailbreaking, for the uninitiated, is the process of unlocking your mobile device (your iPhone, specifically, though the process is now also being done on Android devices) with the intention of getting better applications and user experience that can’t be done with limited system permissions.
The history of jailbreaking is a long and fun one, filled with the drama of the first hack achieved followed by the cat and mouse game played ever since with Apple, as they update their firmware and are inevitably thwarted again, usually by a group of programmers known as the iPhone Dev Team. It also used to be a very real possibility that you would end up with a dead, or “bricked,” phone in the process. As the development community has become more familiar with the iPhone platform that possibility is diminished, but has not completely disappeared.
The folks at the Dev Team have released a browser-based jailbreak tool called jailbreakme.com. This is a large step forward for jailbreaking because it opens up the idea of jailbreaking to a much wider audience. Instead of downloading a program and following a series of steps, you simply navigate to a web page, swipe, and you’re done. Combined with the now much-reduced possibility of ruining your device, jailbreaking has become a much more tempting possibility.
What is not so clear is the benefit of jailbreaking your device. I am not overly excited about applications developed outside of the App Store; none seem to bring major value beyond the mostly excellent iPhone experience. Perhaps this list will convince you. In my opinion, the trade-offs of security and the hassle of re-jailbreaking with each iOS update make this issue a battle of principle and a questioning of basic rights of device ownership.
Apple, for their part, discourages users from jailbreaking their devices because it destabilizes them and makes them more vulnerable to attack. For this reason, you void your warranty if you jailbreak an Apple device. But for the free-software advocates and the folks working hard to start a conversation about copyright law in the electronic age, this is a big step forward, and I look forward to continuing to follow along.
PS: Feeling technical? Curious how this all works? Try this on for size! It’s really quite frightening. Essentially a PDF file is downloaded to your phone that has an “image” embedded in it. But thanks to a bug, the “image” is actually allowed to execute a program that jailbreaks the phone. Go figure.