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France starts criminal probe into Apple over 'obsolescence'

A customer looks at her iPhone at an Apple store in New York, US. French prosecutors are investigating the company for slowing down some older models of the smartphone. Reuters/Lucas Jackson

French prosecutors said Tuesday they are investigating technology giant Apple for violating an innovative new law on planned obsolescence, which could lead to a criminal conviction and have international repercussions.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said it was investigating the company for alleged “deception and planned obsolescence” in some models of its flagship smartphone line, the iPhone.

The investigation was set in motion after Apple admitted in late December that it deliberately slows down some older models of the iPhone as their batteries age.

The admission led consumer rights group Stop Planned Obsolescence (abbreviated in French as HOP) to file a complaint, arguing the company had effectively confessed to breaking French law.

“We have reason to believe that Apple is doing planned obsolescence, which means it has a strategy to make iPhones slower to make people buy new ones,” says Laetitia Vasseur, the group’s president and cofounder.

First test of a landmark law

In 2015, France passed a law banning planned obsolescence, which refers to controversial commercial practices whereby manufacturers build in the expiry of their products so that consumers are forced to replace them.

The law grew out of efforts of groups like HOP, which argues that such practices are unethical and also environmentally unsound, especially in the electronics industry, which produces a lot of unrecyclable waste.

“It’s a social issue, because people don’t want to buy products that were made to break,” Vasseur says. “Secondly, we think it’s a big environmental issue, because it makes a lot of pollution and waste.”

To date, prosecutors have opened one other investigation under the new law, an inquiry launched last month into whether Japanese printer maker Epson forces consumers to buy new ink cartridges before the old ones are empty.

But the investigation into Apple, which will involve complex legal and technical analyses to determine whether the iPhone slowing really breaks the law, will be seen as its more significant test.

“This will actually be a very interesting test case to see how many teeth the law has with respect to multinationals such as Apple,” says Christopher Mesnooh, an international lawyer based in Paris.

“France is actually one of the largest markets in the world for Apple. So, this case will resonate not only in France, but also throughout the rest of the world.”

A long legal process

The probe, carried out by France’s economy ministry, is a preliminary investigation that could last months, before investigators decide to either drop the case or hand it to a judge for a full inquiry.

If it gets to that point, the company risks facing a fine of up to 5 percent of its annual sales, and in theory, executives could even be sentenced to two years in jail.

But even at this stage, HOP believes the case will advance.

“We will have more information thanks to the DGCCRF, which is the consumer police in France,” says Laetitia Vasseur. “It’s very good news that the prosecutor decided to open an investigation after only ten days, it’s quite incredible, and we are very confident about the continuation of this lawsuit.”

A legal headache for Apple

Apple’s office in France did not respond to requests to comment on the investigation.

In its admission about iPhones late last year, the company apologised to customers and also announced a significant reduction in the cost of battery replacements from 79 to 29 US dollars (equivalent to about 66 to 24 euros).

Although France is the only country that has opened a criminal probe, Apple also faces class action lawsuits in the US and Israel.

But Christopher Mesnooh notes the complications for the company go beyond the legal proceedings.

“Whether other countries or other consumer groups will be motivated by what’s going on in France, which is a significant European country, I think there is an issue that Apple is going to have to deal with,” he says.

“The fact that they’ve offered to change batteries on the models in question for a severely reduced price, indicates that Apple is aware that it has an image problem, and it has to address it quickly.”

The investigation is Apple’s second legal headache in France in a week.

Last week, the company filed a lawsuit of its own against activist group Attac over a November action that saw some 100 campaigners occupy the flagship Apple store in Paris to protest alleged wide-scale tax evasion.