AT&T’s Response to the Cell Phone Unlocking Controversy Insults Users

Apologies in advance for the rant, but AT&T's response to the controversy over cell phone unlocking really gets under my skin.

  • Share
  • Read Later

Apologies in advance for the rant, but AT&T’s response to the controversy over cell phone unlocking really gets under my skin.

You may have noticed an uproar recently over the Librarian of Congress’ decision not to exempt cell phone unlocking from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. What this basically means is that unless your wireless carrier allows you to unlock your phone for use on other networks, you could theoretically get sued for unlocking the phone on your own.

The decision prompted a petition to the White House, which drew more than 114,322 signatures. This, in turn, drew a response from the Obama administration and from the FCC, both supporting users’ ability to unlock their cell phones. A Senate bill that would legalize cell phone unlocking was introduced this week.

Naturally, AT&T isn’t happy with these developments, so it’s taken to its own blog to defend itself, with a post titled “Bottom line: We Unlock Our Customers’ Devices.” The only problem? AT&T’s response is filled with misdirection, and is insulting the people who are well aware of what’s going on.

First, AT&T tries to obfuscate the issue by acting as if exemptions to the DMCA do exist after all (emphasis mine):

The Librarian ruled that it would exempt the “unlocking” of mobile handsets from the anti-circumvention law only if a number of conditions were met. Namely, the unlocking must be initiated by the owner of the device (not a bulk reseller) who also owns the copy of the software on the device, the device must have been purchased within a specific time window, the wireless carrier must have failed to act with a reasonable time period on a request to unlock the device and the unlocking must be requested to permit connection to another carrier’s network.

AT&T doesn’t mention this, but the “specific time window” that it refers to has already expired. Only smartphones purchased before January 26 were grandfathered in under the conditions mentioned above. From now on, you can’t unlock a phone without carrier permission.

Let’s be clear: Most carriers do unlock smartphones, but they often have stipulations. Your account must be in good standing — which can mean a month or two of paying for wireless service — and in the case of the iPhone on AT&T, you must have completed your entire service contract. Still, going through the carrier to unlock a phone is a perfectly viable option for many users.

What people are upset about is that wireless carriers still call the shots, even if you’ve paid for your phone in full. That can cause all kinds of problems. You might have trouble unlocking your phone right away if you just bought a new handset at full price and would like to switch to another network, or if you’ve just started a new service contract but would still like to pop in another SIM card for an overseas vacation. And of course, there’s no guarantee that carriers won’t change their policies to discourage unlocking in the future (just like they did with unlimited data).

The outrage is also partly about principle. You bought a piece of hardware; you should be able to use it as you please. The government might not always agree (which is why the DMCA doesn’t exempt jailbreaking of tablets or video game consoles), and companies might not always agree, but that’s the view that is driving the outrage among users.

Plenty of people who are protesting the Librarian of Congress’ ruling know all of this already. But rather than respond to real complaints, AT&T decided to argue that people just don’t know what they’re talking about:

This ruling was interpreted by some to mean that unlocking mobile telephones would be illegal in most if not all circumstances, even prompting a petition to the White House to overturn the Librarian’s ruling.

Regardless of how “some” people interpreted the ruling, other people are keenly aware of what the problems are. This is nothing but misdirection from AT&T, and it assumes people are only angry about the ruling because they’re clueless. Give me a break.

The funny thing is that AT&T says its policy is “fully consistent” with the White House’s own statement this week. But instead of linking to the White House’s statement, AT&T’s blog post links to a National Journal article on how the Obama administration only approves of unlocking once you’ve served your wireless contract. The White House doesn’t weigh in on unlocking a phone during a contract, which you might want to do if you’re headed abroad and want to avoid outrageous roaming fees. The petition to the White House specifically mentions this as a problem with the DMCA ruling.

Now, AT&T could argue that it doesn’t want to be in the business of selling unsubsidized, unlocked phones to people who will turn around and take those phones to competing networks. AT&T could argue that if such a practice became the norm, it would have to further inflate unsubsidized prices. AT&T is also welcome to pat itself on the back for its existing policy toward unlocking, which should be adequate for most customers.

Instead, the company wrote a blog post that talked down to its customers as if they were confused children, and didn’t acknowledge any of the real issues raised by the petition. Bottom line: that’s shameful.

14 comments
busterhoo
busterhoo

i have an iPhone 5 and AT&T has been completely uncooperative in unlocking my phone.  Last week I paid an early termination fee and ported my phone to another carrier.  After calling everyday 5 times per day for three days in a row, i am continually getting different answers on when my phone will be unlocked.  Going on day 5 and it still isn't unlocked.  1st call– no need to unlock.  2nd call- we can unlock while you are on phone (changed to 2 hours)...next series of calls was up to 10 days after your next bill cycle runs (18 days), next call it was 24 to 48 hours.  I feel duped into agreeing to immediately pay the termination fee.  I have been lied to by AT&T. This people are liars and cheats.  I will never go back to AT&T.  Did I mention...my phone still is unlocked and i had to get new phone, because my $1,000 iPhone won't work on another carrier.  Yes I am angry, I wish the FCC or CFPB would get involved in this, or major class action lawsuit.

RonGraham
RonGraham

A few times i tried getting my Iphone 4s unlocks available after having it for 2 years, i had some complications with getting the unlocks, and on top of that i waited a few days and nothing, but i had great success and fast results with ineedjailbreak.com when i found them. so thank you ineedjailbreak.com and i hope this helps some others having issues or want to have unlocks done immediately.

mobmanigroups
mobmanigroups

Don't waste time with them just tell them f..k up 

and insted of them i used  

gooo.asia/iphoneunlock

tom591
tom591

I skipped all that bull and just purchase an unlocked phone my now I just switched from AT&T to Tmobile prepaid and there was nothing they could do there are companies that sell all unlocked phones like eelectronicsunlockedphones.com and cell4u.com there are many more trust me you pay more upfront but at least your not stuck with a contract that cost allot more at the end of two years.

kailasa108
kailasa108

I whole-heartedly agree with this 'rant'.  I've lived abroad both in Europe and Asia, and I can tell you NONE of the carriers there pull BS like this.  ONLY in the US (as far as know).  Overseas, ALL of the phones are unlocked!!!  You go to a cell store, buy your phone.  Go to a carrier, get a SIM card.  Pop it in and voila!  I use to have a pre-paid SIM for each country I was in: there were days I would be in 3 countries; change the SIM on the plane.  NO PROBLEM.

I'm REALLY tired of the US carriers FEUDAL attitude towards US customers.  It's like living in the Dark Ages!!!

BAndersen
BAndersen

Big Bad Corporation VS Common man ..
Everyone knows who the winner is going to be?

SRayConstantine
SRayConstantine

Without knowing all about the rules and regulations in infinite detail, there really should be no problem. If I sign a 2-year contract, I'm required to pay the carrier a monthly charge for 2 years. It should make no difference whether the phone is unlocked, as I'm still locked into the contract. They'll still get their money from me at least until the contract expires.

AnneMcNair
AnneMcNair

The author is right in that the carriers should have no say over cell phones that people have bought and fully own.

One major problem, wrapped up in 3 Points of Note:

1. Yes, carriers are living in the stone ages if they think they're going to tell users what to do with a cell phone that they own. But...

2. ...anyone that still has a cell phone contract is also living in the stone ages.

Why? 

3. When you have a cell phone contract, you DO NOT OWN the device. The carrier is basically LOANING you the device for the duration of the contract (hence, why phones cost less upfront or are free with a contract, but you pay full retail price with no contract).

So, unfortunately, the Librarian of Congress ruling technically can stand for contract cell phone customers - you don't own the phone. The carrier does, and can do and dictate as they please in regards to what happens to that phone.

The most the carrier should be allowed to do for unlocked, contract phones (which they still own) is:

1. Demand cancellation of the contract, return of the instrument, and hit you with their own penalties for breaking the contract and unlocking the phone.

2. Deny you service. While the carrier may no longer own a fully purchased phone, they still do own, maintain and support the network that the phone runs on. So, technically, they could decide not to provide service to any unlocked phones.

But, that's it. If you bought your phone outright, unlocked or uncontracted (i.e., prepaid, Cricket, etc), then the carrier should have no Librarian of Congress-enforced recourse in what you do with it.


bellaluna30
bellaluna30

AT&T went off the rails when they sold the cell aspect of their company to Cingular, and customers left in DROVES.  So, less than 2 years later, when AT&T re-purchased the cell business from Cingular, I guess they were shocked by the number of former customers who continued to avoid them.

This isn't winning them any new ones, either.

newmanjb
newmanjb

@SRayConstantine Exactly. In fact most carriers will unlock your phone during the contract, so one doesn't necessarily have to do with the other. On AT&T, the iPhone is the main exception to this rule.

kailasa108
kailasa108

@AnneMcNair I don't agree with your assessment that the phone is "loaned".  Actually it's more like the cost is subsidized by the carrier because of the service contract.  You STILL own the phone.

Conan_Kudo
Conan_Kudo

@AnneMcNair The thing is, the contracts are not structured as if it is a loan. You do own the device, because according to everyone that cares (including agents of law) you own it. Sure, you bought it at a severe discount, but you do own it. It's not legally treated as a loan of any kind. The contract does not stipulate that the ETF is for covering the device. It stipulates that it is to cover the term of the agreement. That's the difference.