AT&T responds to DMCA complaints, promises to keep unlocking cellphones for their customers


Most of us already know the story. On January 26, 2013, it became effectively became illegal under the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) for consumers to unlock a cell phone provided from a carrier for use on another network, unless they had approval from the original carrier. That means where you could normally unlock, say, an AT&T phone for use on T-Mobile’s newly refarmed 1900MHz network, it has now become illegal. Just about everyone has been up in arms over the law, sparking a petition seeking legislative action, even gaining the attention of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who stated that the unlocking ban “raises competition concerns,” as well as “innovation concerns.”

Well, AT&T has finally decided to weigh in on the matter in a post found on the company’s Public Policy Blog. Their thoughts? “Chillax, boo, we’ll still unlock our cellphones for you… but there are some caveats.”

“While we think the Librarian’s careful decision was reasonable, the fact is that it has very little impact on AT&T customers.  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.  If the conditions are met we will unlock up to five devices per account per year. We will not unlock devices that have been reported lost or stolen.”

60 days. Good standing. No longer on contract. Sounds reasonable enough. If you’re a new AT&T customer and buy a subsidized phone for $200, you’ll have to wait until your current contract is up before you can unlock that phone and sell it to someone else for use on another network. The problem? Those people who buy used locked AT&T phones for use on other networks — they’re the ones getting stiffed. Well, those and unsavory types who sell falsely reported lost or stolen smartphones.

I have sort of mixed feelings about the whole thing. While I agree this kinda sucks for Android junkies looking to refresh their handset with a new one every 6 months by selling their phones on eBay/Craigslist/etc, there’s really nothing stopping anyone from selling their phone to someone already on AT&T’s network. I guess the real issue is with non-AT&T customers looking to score a used-deal on an AT&T phone for use on T-Mobile or in another country, and of course, isn’t something AT&T seems too concerned with.

Curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you think AT&T’s stance on the whole matter is unreasonable? Or do feel like they really shouldn’t have an obligation to provide unlocking services for non-customers?

[via AT&T Public Policy Blog | MobileBurn]

Chris Chavez
I've been obsessed with consumer technology for about as long as I can remember, be it video games, photography, or mobile devices. If you can plug it in, I have to own it. Preparing for the day when Android finally becomes self-aware and I get to welcome our new robot overlords.

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  1. So what about do mine who wants to buy a used phone it’s illegal and they won’t unlock it

  2. This sucks for people who buy there phones “off Contract” from Craigslist Ebay etc… in a nut shell it limits your phone selection in 1/2 or more depending on what cell company you are with

    1. It’s not that tough to find unlock codes on forums. NUFF SAID

      1. Its not that its hard, its that its illegal.

        1. Well whose enforcing it though?

          1. Theoretically if it stays illegal it could be about the same as downloading a song or movie illegally. I would think if the carriers wanted to they could pursue you for unlocking your own device without their consent. Luckily it doesn’t look like it will stay illegal.

        2. The OP didn’t bring up legality, he brought up not having access to the codes

          1. Regardless, we should be free to do what we please with OUR devices. So long as the original contract terms are met or the ETF paid, the carriers should have no bearing on what we do with our devices.

          2. Agreed

      2. i agree, unlock codes are pretty easy to find /buy. But what happens when they start going after websites and shutting them down?

  3. hmm well I must say thanks to them for talking up on this BUT they are full of it because a year ago when I wanted to unlock my AT&T phone I have been a good customer for over 10 years called them and was told NO! We dont do that and wont give you a code to unlock, your device. I had to go around them and do it myself but I until I see this I dont believe them, I was out of contract and told NO so I dont believe them. And because of that and this whole new law with it being illegal I dont want any of their phones or contracts, really looking at the pure google Nexus 5 now thats coming.

    1. Well, I guess now you can point them to this blog post. Lol

  4. The biggest problem I have with AT&T’s position is that it screws their current customers who want to travel overseas and not “roam” while they’re traveling, as well as the customers who buy new phones more frequently than their contract length terms are. Chris covered that case pretty well, but nobody mentioned that people who travel between Europe and America (especially those living part of the year in one country, and part of the year in another) are unable to do so under AT&T’s current policy.

  5. You don’t need a carrier’s permission to unlock a phone (nobody’s really going to jail), and you don’t always NEED an “unlock code” either. You can unlock many phones with hacks. e.g. I unlocked my old Captivate by simply flipping a single bit with a hex editor in /efs/nvram iirc

    1. If I’m not mistaken, you were only able to do that because of a mistake by Samsung where your old Captivate along with the Vibrant had the unlock code hidden in a file in the phone. After it became public knowledge, Samsung issued an update that removed the hidden code from the phone. There was even a program available in the app store that one could download and easily get the code, if I’m not mistaken it was fluke chance with your Captivate because of Samsung leaving the codes in the phone.

      1. Well he did point out “hacks”.

      2. Even the international Galaxy S3 can be unlocked without a code using voodoo sim unlock:

        Tons of other examples too. Granted, not every phone is so easily hacked, so it’s easier for most people to just pony up the cash for the magic code.

      3. Yes mistaken you are my friend. There is always a way to unlock. Just depends on how much money or time you want to put into it. Name one phone that cannot be unlocked and ill show you a guy that can unlock it.

        1. How much money and time do I got? You make it too complicated.

          I just pick up my phone, call up my carrier and they unlock it for me, end of story. And they have been doing so completely free of charge for many years now on all my phones.

          1. Right, always try that first. I think the point being is when/if they don’t

  6. This really isn’t that much of a problem anymore since OEM’s are starting to make the same phone across different carriers.

  7. AT&T should be required to unlock any AT&T branded device at any time, even for non-customers, add long as the terms of the original sale have been met (service agreement completed or ETF paid) and the device hasn’t been reported lost or stolen. If a device is purchased outright, or at the time the terms of the sale have been satisfied, it should be unlocked immediately, without the customer even having to request it. When a subsidized device is sold, it essentially has a lien on it. Once the lien has been satisfied there should be no restrictions on the use of the device.

  8. What if you are still under contract but are traveling overseas?

  9. If I bought the device out right there isn’t a reason for AT&T or anyone else not to unlock it, especially if I am asking for it to be unlocked..Good Example is Nokia Lumia 920..They are selling it out right for $449..

  10. I bought all my phones locked from eBay. This really limits my future options since not all phones have hacks. I hope this gets overturned soon.

    1. While I’m sure it will get overturned, it doesn’t mean that AT&T is obligated to unlock your device you purchased on EBay. It simply means that unlocking your device yourself isn’t illegal as it currently is.

  11. I think the phones should be unlockable regardless of carieers, after buying a phone you be able to do whatever you want with it.

    1. If you only pay $0-$250 for it, you haven’t bought it until your contract is up.

      1. That maybe but you should still be able to unlock it. if you break your contract and switch carriers they’re just going to charge you anyway.

      2. You have bought it, just as you’ve bought your house even if you have a mortgage on it.

  12. That`s mean as long you pay off your contract, the handset it self will be free to unlock or do what ever.

  13. T-mobile will unlock your phone so you can use pre-paid sims while traveling internqtionally as long as the acc is in good standing

  14. What you say is the fact. When I get ready I just add to the phone name I’m selling the carrier. Ie. Sprint at$t Verizon and sell it telling the buyer he/she will be on that carrier
    They still sell and I get to upgrade. Did it twice last year! ツ

  15. How can an account be active for only 60 days and out of contract? The shortest term they allow is a year. That’s like saying you need to eat lettuce that’s not a vegetable…

  16. No, not reasonable, and here’s why: On-contract phone. I travel to Europe for a week. Do I want to pay data roaming charges? Hell no. I’m going to get a local SIM card for a week, then come back to the US with my existing carrier. That’s all within my contract period.

    I’ve done this a couple of times with T-Mobile over the years. When last I checked, they’ll unlock a phone after 90 days, even if you’re still on contract. That’s much more reasonable.

    And even if I buy a phone on contract, then unlock and sell it… so what? The contract terms have the purchase price of the phone factored in. They’ll still get their money from me. What does AT&T care if I’ve sold it and am still giving them money?

    Nope, still not satisfied, Ma Bell. Sticking with T-Mobile.

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