Most of the time, major corporations like to cushion their words so that, in the event of a PR disaster, it's easier to walk back its statements. Today, an AT&T exec in charge of public policy decided to throw that caution to the wind and announce in no uncertain terms 'the Librarian’s ruling will not negatively impact any of AT&T’s customers.' Well. That sure is blunt.
We're not apt to take any AT&T rep at their word, and there are certainly some things to raise eyebrows over. For starters, at one point in the post, the author says the following:
As we make clear on our website, if we have the unlock code or can reasonably get it from the manufacturer, AT&T currently will unlock a device for any customer whose account has been active for at least sixty days; whose account is in good standing and has no unpaid balance; and who has fulfilled his or her service agreement commitment.
Right off the bat, we have to take issue with this "As we make clear on our website" nonsense. The 'Wireless Customer Agreement' contract is not only something that no one reads, but it's far from "clear" to anyone who does. If carriers would like to convince us that their unlock policies are on track, we could use at least a help page that makes things clear.
However, the broader point is the one we're most interested in and that's the part that can only be vetted on a case-by-case basis. The policy is simple: if you've paid for your device, you're out of contract, and you don't owe AT&T a bunch of money, the company will unlock your phone. That sounds fair, right? I mean, sure you feel like you own your phone the day you pay $200 for it, but if we're going to be reasonable with the carriers at all, you are getting that phone at a steep discount and you did agree to sign a contract. Until you finish those two years, though, you haven't really paid your phone off. So maybe we can all (mostly) agree that completing your contract is a reasonable condition to getting your phone unlocked. Alternatively, users can buy their handsets carrier-free. I heard there's a really cheap one on the Play Store.
So, if we accept that (not everyone does), then here's what we're left with: most people are able to unlock their phones whenever they want. I say 'most' while AT&T says 'all' because there are a couple things the carrier hasn't covered here. For starters, there's the possibility the company might not be able to get the unlock code. Unlikely, especially on more modern devices, but sometimes things happen.
However, that's where the DMCA exemption comes in. As we have covered before, it is still legal for you to personally unlock your handsets if the carrier has not done so within a reasonable period of time (barring the aforementioned contractual obligations). In other words, if you buy a Galaxy S III on AT&T, then six months later you suddenly decide to cancel your contract, you can pay your ETF and get AT&T to unlock your phone to use on T-Mobile. That's policy. If the company can't, however, you're free to do as you wish. This is not illegal.
What about international users, though? You bought your phone last year, but now you need to leave the country. Well, that does get a little complicated, but only because AT&T (and most carriers, really) has a habit of contradicting itself. For example, I just spoke with an AT&T customer service rep on the phone that confirmed, yes, you can unlock a phone that's under contract for international travel, but not domestic use. However, a forum post also claims you cannot unlock your phone for international travel. So, it's a little unclear. That's probably something people should be concerned about.
The takeaway, however, is that this issue is much more complex than people seem to think it is. The headlines that say there's an outright ban on unlocking smartphones are sexy, but they're inaccurate. Even the DMCA exemptions allow you to unlock under certain conditions, and the carriers allow it under even more.
So, the question has to be, what fight are we fighting? Does the unlock crowd want to be able to remove carrier restrictions under any circumstances without the approval of the company that sold it to them for a highly subsidized price? Or are we okay with some middle-ground compromises that allow for contract terms to be fulfilled? If so, how much leverage are we willing to give carriers?
All of these questions will probably be discussed at length as legislation moves forward, but from this statement, it seems pretty clear what AT&T's stance is: we already give you all the freedom you want or need.
I'm sure no one will have sarcastic comments about that.
Source: AT&T Public Policy Blog