AT&T promises no phone unlocking worries for customers

Consumers, Congress, and even the President of the United States are all fired up over a ruling by the top librarian at the Library of Congress that says unlocking your own mobile phone is a violation of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). But AT&T subscribers need not worry one bit about that subject—at least according to a top executive at the company.

“I want to be completely clear that AT&T’s policy is to unlock our customers’ devices if they’ve met the terms of their service agreements and we have the unlock code,” vice president Joan Marsh wrote in a company blog posted Friday entitled “Bottom Line: We Unlock Our Customers’ Devices.”

“It’s a straightforward policy, and we aim to make the unlocking process as easy as possible,” she added.

Marsh explained that the company will unlock a customer’s phone as long as the carrier can obtain the unlock code for the device and the phone’s owner has had an active account with AT&T for at least 60 days, the account is in good standing, and there’s no unpaid balance on it.

“If the conditions are met, we will unlock up to five devices per account per year,” Marsh wrote.

AT&T will not unlock devices that have been reported or stolen, though.

The carrier’s unlock policy is consistent with the one aired by the White House in a response to an electronic petition criticizing last year’s ruling that phone unlocking was illegal. That petition garnered more than 100,000 signatures.

“The White House agrees with the 114,000+ of you who believe that consumers should be able to unlock their cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties,” wrote R. David Edelmen, White House senior advisor for Internet, innovation and privacy, wrote in the Obama administration’s official response to the petition.

“[I]f you have paid for your mobile device, and aren’t bound by a service agreement or other obligation, you should be able to use it on another network,” he added.

“It’s common sense,” he continued, “crucial for protecting consumer choice, and important for ensuring we continue to have the vibrant, competitive wireless market that delivers innovative products and solid service to meet consumers’ needs.”

Sina Khanifar, the app developer who started the petition that triggered the White House’s response, had a mixed reaction to the news of AT&T’s unlocking policy. “I think it’s great that AT&T are coming out to say they have a liberal unlocking policy. But that doesn’t in any way reduce the need for unlocking to be exempted from the DMCA,” he wrote in an email to TechHive.

Specifically, Khanifar cited ambiguities in AT&T’s explanation of its policy: What if the carrier does not have the unlock code? And what does it mean to have an account in “good standing.” For that reason, Khanifar questions AT&T’s claim that its customers wouldn’t be impact by the phone unlocking ban.

“If [AT&T doesn’t] have the unlock code, if the customer hasn’t been on contract for at least 60 days, or ‘fulfilled his or her service agreement commitment,’ then they don’t get an unlock code,” wrote Khanifar, who is now spearheading a campaign that calls for changes to the DCMA. “And finally, all this depends on how quickly the unlock codes are delivered—AT&T states on their iPhone unlocking portal that requests may take five to seven business days. How about consumers who need their phones unlocked quicker than that?”

In addition to the President, Congress has also jumped in on the unlock bandwagon. Prominent digital rights advocate Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) filed legislation this week to allow consumers to unlock their phones for use on other networks.

The ban on consumers unlocking their smartphones went into effect in January. The decision was made by Congressional Librarian James Hadley Billington, who is responsible, under law, for interpreting the DMCA.

According to Billington, unlocking your own phone is a violation of the act, which prohibits circumventing any technology used to protect copyrighted material.

AT&T wasn’t always so sanguine about unlocking their customer’s phones. It was one of the last carriers to allow their users to unlock their phones when traveling overseas.

Updated at 11:54 a.m. PT to include comments from petition organizer Sina Khanifar.

TechHive’s Philip Michaels contributed to this report.

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