AT&T Will Now Unlock Smartphones at End of Contract

Posted by at 12:59 pm on March 11, 2013

Following a decision by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress that ruled that unlocking an iPhone without carrier permission is now illegal — and pressure from both President Obama and the FCC to reverse the ban — AT&T has clarified its policy and will unlock customer smartphones that have completed their contract. The move requires a customer’s account to be in good standing with no unpaid balance, but the company has not mentioned an extra fee for the service.

AT&T has been known to unlock customer’s phones before today’s announcement in some cases, but the policy was inconsistently applied — even requiring requests directly from Apple CEO Tim Cook to get the carrier to unlock a device. For many years, the company refused to unlock smartphones entirely, even after the contract was completed. The new Copyright Office ruling not only banned customers unlocking their own phones, but imposed severe financial penalties and even jail time for doing so without permission of the carrier.

The draconian penalties prompted a petition to the Obama administration’s petitioning website, We the People, and achieved the required 100,000 signatures in order to prompt an official response from the administration. The response strongly agreed with the petitioners that the ban circumvented competition and harmed consumers, and urged Congress to draft legislation undoing the Copyright Office’s decision, which was based on the much-criticized DMCA laws that severely curtailed consumer rights with regards to any sort of digital media or equipment.

Several bills are now pending before Congress to undo the ban, but all only allow unlocking of smartphones after the completion of a contract with a cell provider. AT&T has reacted to the prevailing sentiment that the current restrictions are unfair and clarified its unlocking policy, and other carriers are expected to follow suit if they did not already have a clear unlocking policy. AT&T has even set up a web page to allow iPhone users to request unlocking online.

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