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New Rules for iPhone App and ebook Hackers

Apple's iPhone 3Gs
Jack Guez | AFP | Getty Images
Apple's iPhone 3Gs

iPhone users don’t have to fear criminal charges for jailbreaking their iPhones, thanks to new rules the Library of Congress handed down yesterday.

But the hack is still risky.

Apple tells me it’s still quite possible that by "jailbreaking," or altering your phone’s software to let it run apps that aren’t officially sanctioned by Apple, you could still end up voiding your warranty.

So why does this matter? It’s a step toward giving consumers more control over their technology. And the rule change could embolden the community of developers that’s making unsanctioned iPhone apps. With these new rules, it will be harder for Apple to argue that consumers shouldn't load up their phones with software that isn’t necessarily harmful, but that the tastemakers in Cupertino just doesn’t care for – things like Google Voice and pornography.

Here's what Apple has to say about it:

"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. As we've said before, the vast majority of customers do not jailbreak their iPhones as this can violate the warranty and can cause the iPhone to become unstable and not work reliably."

You might be wondering what the Library of Congress is doing issuing iPhone rules in the first place. It all goes back to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, a piece of legislation that was supposed to update the rules of content for the digital age. Consumer advocates have criticized the law as too restrictive on what consumers can do with software and other digital goods they buy. That’s led consumer advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation to fight legal battles to tweak the rules – and these latest changes are a direct result of the EFF’s campaign.

"It’s a step toward giving consumers more control over their technology." -Tech Check, CNBC, Jon Fortt

The six new rules will help you even if you’re not an iPhone user.

A sampling of the key changes: Consumers can now break the digital locks on movie DVDs in order to use short clips for education, documentaries and criticism. They can break the locks on ebooks to let a device read them aloud. And they can “unlock” a cell phone purchased to run on, say AT&T’s network, and make it run on T-Mobile’s.

Lots of questions on whether this paves the way for an iPhone on Verizon’s network.

The answer?

Nope. AT&T, the iPhone’s exclusive carrier in the U.S., uses a wireless network standard called GSM. Verizon uses a standard called CDMA. That means the networks effectively speak completely different languages, and a phone would need entirely different hardware to run on one network vs. the other. It’s less clear how these rules might affect things in the years ahead, when both AT&T and Verizon move to the LTE standard for 4G wireless broadband.

I asked EFF Staff Attorney Corynne McSherry what battles they'll be fighting next.

She said after they take a little time to savor their victory, they'll go back to watching how Apple and Hollywood react to these rules — and based on that, they'll keep fighting for consumers to have more control over their experience.

Questions? Comments? TechCheck@cnbc.com