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.

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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.