What is jailbreaking?

Earlier this week there was big news from the U.S. government relating to smartphones as the Librarian of Congress ruled that jailbreaking a phone was not illegal. A provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes it illegal to circumvent copyright protections in products.

The core software on smartphones is protected so that key files are not deleted or overwritten, which could result with the phone not functioning properly. Prior to the ruling this week, circumventing the protections on smartphone operating systems is illegal under the DMCA. I expect that the ruling will be challenged by smartphone OS companies, but in the mean time it appears that those who wish to jailbreak their phones can do so believing that they are not breaking the law.

Jailbreaking is the term used to refer to circumventing the copyright protections on the iPhone software. Rooting is the term used for the same act with Android phones. In summary the process of jailbreaking or rooting involves gaining read and write access to the file storage area on the phone where the operating system files are located.

Once read/write access is obtained tweaks can be made to the phone’s software to add functionality, and in many cases entirely new versions of the operating system is installed. In the early days of the iPhone, people jailbroke their phones to install applications on the phone because initially the iPhone did not support apps. Android users root their phones to install customized versions of the Android operating system that range to adding features like tethering, to providing a full upgrade. For example, by rooting a myTouch 3G, which officially only supports Android 1.6, one can install Android 2.1 on the phone.

There are risks to jailbreaking and rooting phones, and the process can be fairly technical. A misstep along the way can render the phone completely inoperable. Smartphone OS companies don’t like jailbreaking because it changes their product in ways they didn’t intend, and mobile phone companies don’t like jailbreaking because it could be used to circumvent controls put in place to protect their networks. The people who jailbreak their phones do so to add functionality, and to come up with unique modifications to their phones that nonone else has, similar to how some people modify their cars.