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

Eric Ravenscraft
Eric is a snarky technophile with a taste for the unusual. When he's not obsessing about Android, you can usually find him obsessing about movies, psychology, or the perfect energy drink. Eric weaves his own special blend of snark, satire, and comedy into all his articles.

  • Dmitry Lekhtuz

    I had my share of problems with AT&T. But they always unlocked my phones without being asked twice. Only once I had to wait several weeks because of some "contractual obligations between AT&T and Samsung" when I asked to unlock a just released Infuse. They gave me a date after which unlock codes would be available. I called after that date and got the code immediately.
    If only reception was better where I live...

  • Bryce Mrozinski

    I've seem and have dealt with the situation where its pretty 50/50 whether some ATT international Reps will had out unlock codes. Got mine with the second rep I spoke to. On-contract GS3.

    • Dmitry Lekhtuz

      GS3 was the only phone that I unlocked myself because it was easier and faster than calling AT&T :)

  • Magnus100

    I'm hoping there will be a single Galaxy Note III with the same specs and radios worldwide so I can buy an international unlocked version for full price and use where, when and how I please.
    This should also help with updates directly from Samsung

  • http://papped.webatu.com papped

    Even before this carriers (AT&T specifically comes to mind) sometimes refuse to provide unlock codes for phones sold at MSRP with no subsidization at all for a period of several months or longer. The subsidization is but one factor and often is not even the reason why a phone is not unlocked...

  • delesh

    It's easy. If you fulfill the contract or pay the ETF you should be able to unlock the phone.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/eric-ravenscraft/ Eric Ravenscraft

      Actually, carriers can and often do lose moneys on subsidies. The mechanics behind the scenes are kind of complex but, for example, Apple requires that a certain number of devices be sold and if they're not, the carriers owe money. These kinds of deals can sometimes result in subsidies costing carriers money. The short version is, carriers would be just as happy if subsidies disappeared. They don't want subsidies, they just want contracts.

      Also, according to the statement put out today, yes, you have the ability to unlock your phone if you have fulfilled your contract or paid your ETF. So...we're all good, right?

      • delesh

        Basically the AT&T policy is ok. I dont like that you have to fullfil 2 months of service. If I pay the ETF it should be enough. But I could live with it as is. My concern is that carriers can change the rules whenever they want to. I would hope that customer pressure would prevent that, but I don't trust those carriers :)

        • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/eric-ravenscraft/ Eric Ravenscraft

          I think the 2 months is to protect themselves from people attempting to game the system. Especially commercial resellers. It's unfortunate, and it kind of sucks for the consumer, but in a lot of ways that's some bad apples ruining it for the rest of us, not the carriers just trying to screw us.

          I agree that the carriers might be able to change the rules and that's why I think that legislation isn't a bad idea. But it does need to be considered with care. Because it could be very easy to pass something that screws us even more. With all the major carriers pushing to support LTE and 40-band mega-radios that can support just about anything on the planet coming, we'd do well not to screw it all up before we can really get to that single, interoperable global network.

          • delesh

            Yes, we definitely don't want to rush into anything and screw ourselves more.

      • tvBilly

        I must be missing something here. Example: I buy a phone from AT&T, after two months of unusable service, I pay off the ETF, throw the phone in the drawer, and go with Verizon. A month later my sister hears I have a GSM phone sitting in the drawer, and wants it to use on T-Mobile. She's not an AT&T customer and I'm not an AT&T customer (anymore). AT&T will refuse to unlock the phone, even though all contractual obligations have been fulfilled. You seem to have overlooked that AT&T will only unlock one of their phones if the person requesting the unlock is a customer of theirs, even though the phone has been fully paid off, and the contract involving it has been fulfilled. This is not the only example either, there are many. (And AT&T is not the only US carrier that screws the customer, they're just the only one stupid enough to post that kind of message to their blog.)

  • Andy_in_Indy

    Want I want is to be able to buy an old phone on eBay and unlock it without having to be an AT&T customer for two months.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/eric-ravenscraft/ Eric Ravenscraft

      You can do that.

  • delesh

    I think you misunderstood the law. It is not illegal to unlock your phone if you purchased it before the law went into effect or within 90 days after. It is illegal to unlock it after unless you get permission form the carrier.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/eric-ravenscraft/ Eric Ravenscraft

      No, I did not misunderstand the exemption.

      • delesh

        You wrote: "it is still legal for you to personally unlock your handsets if the carrier has not done so within a reasonable period of time."

        The DMCA document states the device must be: "acquired from the operator of a wireless telecommunications network or retailer no later than ninety days after the effective date of this exemption."

        So it may still be legal if you already own the device and bought it before the cutoff date, but not in all circumstances and certainly not if you buy a phone today. The article just makes it sound like it is legal if the carrier doesn't do it in a reasonable amount of time. So if I am misunderstanding what you meant, I apologize.

        • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/eric-ravenscraft/ Eric Ravenscraft

          The part of the document you're quoting is the legal mumbo jumbo, but it might be unclear apart from the context of the Register's comments whether it means that those two conditions (within 90 days and within a reasonable time frame) are an 'and' or an 'or' kind of situation. The way it's written sounds like an 'and'. As in, it has to be withing 90 days and you have to have asked first.

          However, the 90 day grace period is a small extension of the previous three-year ruling which allowed it whether users talked to the carrier or not. This is an adjustment period. And on page 96 of the Register's comments (link below), we see the following text:

          "With respect to “legacy” phones, however – that is, used (or perhaps unused) phones previously purchased or otherwise acquired by a consumer – the record supports a different finding. The record demonstrates that there is significant consumer interest and demand in using legacy phones on carriers other than the one that originally sold the phone to the consumer. The record also supports a finding that owners of legacy phones – particularly phones that have not been used on any wireless network for some period of time – may have difficulty obtaining unlocking codes from wireless carriers"

          Now, there's still room for interpretation there but, if it were to go to court (an unlikely event to begin with), there is room enough between that and the way the exemption is stated to argue that a user was not violating the law if, after the end of a two-year contract and a failed attempt to contact the carrier, they unlocked the phone themselves.

          tl;dr: the 90 day provision is not an *additional* allowance, but an *alternative* one. The "reasonable time frame" exemption was intended to apply to legacy devices long after the 90 day grace period had expired.

          Source: http://www.copyright.gov/1201/2012/Section_%201201_%20Rulemaking%20_2012_Recommendation.pdf

          • delesh

            Yes, but that still means that legally unlocking phones only applies to "legacy" devices (those acquired before the exemption or 90 days after). I was never arguing that legacy devices can't be unlocked legally. I was referring to those devices purchased after the 90 day transitional period. So if I buy a new phone now and ask for it to be unlocked and the carrier does not do so in a timely manner it is illegal to unlock it until I receive permission. The impression I got from your article was that if I purchased a phone now and asked to have it unlocked and the carrier did not do so in a timely manner it would be legal for me to unlock it at that point. Sorry, not trying to be an ass, just trying to understand the situation.

  • squiddy20

    "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." Take that with a grain of salt since most customer service reps (on all carriers, not just AT&T) have no clue what they're talking about.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/eric-ravenscraft/ Eric Ravenscraft

      This is very true...

  • Dave Pellegrin

    AT&T recently gave me the unlocked code for my S3. The first customer service person I talked to wanted proof of purchased faxed and even then it would take 7 days for them to 'OK' the unlock. I called back and the second rep had no problems giving me the unlock code. I bought the S3 in Dec.

  • Jw

    Look, if no one reads the customer agreement, it can't be clear to anyone.

  • brando_slc

    It's about basic property rights. If you own the phone (legally purchased, not under contract, just like a vehicle with no liens) you shouldn't have to meet requirements B, C, D and E. Owning it should be enough. It's your property, the lock isn't on there to keep you from stealing the software (the real purpose of the DMCA), it's on there to restrict your choice as a consumer. You should have legal authority to remove that.

    What about used markets? Tens of thousands of phones online, many ready to go, legal devices that are not stolen or under contract with anyone. You should be able to unlock that device, without meeting five other requirements and jumping through a bunch of hoops. You OWN the phone. (Or do you?)

    • Vanshaj Bhaskar

      Do we have to pay carrier after unlocking its phone ?

  • chaka

    Liars. Plain and simple. First thing they did when the law expired was to pull their Straight Talk sims. Second thing they did was cap their Net10 sims. They can claim those are not their customers, but that is BS in two ways. First, they own 25% of the conglomerate that owns tracphone, who owns net10 and straight talk. Second, they are being paid by both companies for tower access. Dollars they would not otherwise have because nobody in their right mind would pay ATTs prices when they have a choice of carriers. I wish this company nothing but the worst.

  • Happy Ex-AT&T customer

    I paid "full price" for a Samsung Galaxy SIII from AT&T in Aug 2012, and was told by AT&T Customer Service I had a 2-yr commitment from the purchase (after a 5-day fight, they finally took the phone back). When I originally ordered the phone, AT&T said their Customer Service would unlock it when I received it. So, AT&T management is correct, since I'm no longer and never will be again an AT&T customer, they keep their customers happy.

  • Aasen

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  • Aasen

    I know a really good site for AT&T users who want to unlock their phone or any other AT&T devices, it's attiphoneunlocking, it's also the most reliable unlocking site I have ever use