The Ban on Cellphone Unlocking Has Gone Too Far

In one of the industry's first effort to allay customer concerns since regulations went into effect six weeks ago that make it illegal to unlock your cellphone, AT&T is telling you to relax, they'll unlock it for you. As long as you do exactly what they say. Indeed, the newly clarified policy only reinforces how much power cell carriers wield with the new unlocking law: AT&T can still deny its customers the freedom of truly owning a phone they bought through another company — and that's why Senators are now saying it's "common sense" to overturn it.  

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In a blog post on Friday, AT&T regulatory executive Joan Walsh insisted that customers' phones won't remain trapped under AT&T contract forever, as long as they play along: "I want to be completely clear that AT&T's policy is to unlock our customers' devices if they've met the terms of their service agreements and we have the unlock code." Walsh insiste that it was "a straightforward policy, and we aim to make the unlocking process as easy as possible," despite an immediate backlash from users that it was extremely not easy at all. AT&T pointed readers to this jargon filled-legal document, part of which explains the company's policy as straightforward, sure — straightforward and complex:

 AT&T will provide the Unlock Code upon request, provided that you meet certain criteria including, but not limited to the following: (a) your account has been active for at least sixty days and is in good standing (i.e. it has no past due amount or unpaid balance owed AT&T); (b) you have fulfilled your Service Commitment by expiration of any contractual term, upgrading to a new Device under AT&T’s standard or early upgrade policies, or payment of any applicable ETF; (c) your Device has not been reported lost or stolen; and (d) AT&T has the Unlock Code or can reasonably obtain it from the manufacturer. AT&T will unlock a maximum of five phones per account, per year. For Devices sold with a Prepaid Plan, AT&T will provide you with the Unlock Code upon request if you provide a detailed receipt or other proof of purchase of the phone and AT&T has the Unlock Code or can reasonably obtain it from the manufacturer.

As you can see, under AT&T's thumb, you can really only get a legal unlock code if you're the perfect phone customer. And even then, it's not so easy, as commenters on the company blog post were quick to point out:

That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of this policy. You guys refused to unlock my Captivate for 13 months, and you refused it for my Galaxy S III even now, saying I must wait 18 months.

When I bought my iPhone 5 at full retail, it took me three weeks to get you guys to do it, because you required faxing at specific moments, and all sorts of weird stuff. You guys refused to unlock my iPhone 4 until after my contract term expired, and even then, it took four tries to get someone who actually didn’t tell me that you can’t unlock it.

Another user pointed to this lengthy blog post describing a painful, 15-step AT&T unlocking process, the ultimate conclusion of which was straightforward in its frustration: 

Perhaps we were guilty of having expected some responsiveness, but the fact is, AT&T and Apple could make the unlocking process far more efficient and pleasant. We've paid for these products and carried them through multiple-year contracts. We ought to be treated better.

So, yeah, leaving the legal unlocking to the carriers in the days of illegal unlocking for users doesn't exactly solve the thousands of complaints since the provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act went into effect in late January.

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But even if AT&T had a decent policy, it might not suffice: "The problem isn't simply whether or not carriers have a reasonable unlocking policy, but the right for people to use software to change the firmware on their phones and use them as they wish," Sina Khanifar, who started a White House petition to overturn the unlocking ban, told CNET's Roger Cheng. Worst of all, in its post on Friday, AT&T admits it agrees with the initial ban: "We think the Librarian’s careful decision was reasonable," Marsh writes, emphasis ours. She's referencing the Librarians of Congress's decision to make unlocking illegal under DMCA. But, of course AT&T would agree with the ruling. It's in the best interests of these wireless companies to hook people into their services — and seemingly neverending contracts — with locked phones. 

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As much as AT&T and other carriers want to keep the upper hand with the new regulation, the rest of Washington may be pushing back. After support for reform from the White House and the FCC,  Senators Amy Klobuchar, Richard Blumenthal  and Mike Lee introduced the Wireless Consumer Choice Act on Thursday afternoon, which hopes to rescind the new ban on unlocking phones rule. Senator Ron Wyden introduced similar legislation, and there was more movement in the House. Blumenthal said overturning the unlocking ban was "common sense, crucial for protecting consumer choice, and important for ensuring healthy competition in the market."