Just when you thought that you’d heard the last of Apple’s 2018-era “Batterygate” scandal, it seems that yet another group of lawmakers are launching a probe into whether Apple violated consumer laws when it decided to slow down older iPhones with deteriorating batteries.
Attorneys General from several U.S. states have launched investigations into the possibility of “deceptive trade practices” by Apple, with news breaking last week from Axios that the Texas Attorney General was considering suing Apple for possible violations of that state’s laws, in connection with a “multi-state investigation.
The Axios report, which cited documents obtained by the Tech Transparency Project, couldn’t offer any additional information into what specific practices were involved or which consumer laws the coalition of states were accusing Apple of violating, but it now appears that it could have something to do with Apple’s choice to throttle iPhones a few years ago, particularly in light of another new multi-state probe that’s now being led by the Attorney General of Arizona.
According to Reuters, this investigation — which could be separate from whatever Texas is up to right now — is very specifically looking to determine if Apple’s “deliberate slowing of older iPhones violated deceptive trade practice laws.”
Documents reviewed by Reuters reveal that this particular probe has been underway since at least October 2018, although it only came to light this week after Reuters obtained the documents from Texas via a public records request.
These documents are distinct from those that were obtained by the Tech Transparency Project, and although Texas is obviously involved here, it’s not entirely clear if the two investigations are linked in any way.
As the documents detail, investigators have asked Apple for data regarding “unexpected shutdowns” of iPhones and the company’s approach to throttling the devices through its power management software. According to a source familiar with the matter, a majority of U.S. states are teaming up on the investigation, with Attorneys General on both ends of the political spectrum supporting the probe.
This whole debacle began in late 2017 when a researcher found that his iPhone 6s performance basically doubled after he changed the battery on the device, leading to the discovery of a power management module in iOS 10.2.1 that was designed to reduce CPU performance as the battery deteriorated.
While Apple had somewhat obliquely mentioned the existence of this module in its iOS 10.2.1 release notes, it wasn’t until this discovery that the company came forward with a more candid explanation of what it was doing.
Specifically, by slowing down the CPU on iPhones with deteriorating batteries, Apple could prevent them from shutting down entirely at inopportune moments. It was a simple tradeoff between reliability and performance, but it was one that Apple made on behalf of its users without giving them any say in the matter, or even telling them what it was doing.
Although Apple began offering discounted battery replacements and later added a new battery health feature in iOS 11.3, the discovery resulted in a massive consolidated class-action lawsuit which only came to a resolution earlier this month with Apple agreeing to pay out $500 million in settlement fees, which worked out to about $25 per affected iPhone user — plus $93 million for the lawyers who pursued the case.
Although we disagree with the allegation that Apple was deliberately trying to force users to upgrade — it makes no sense for Apple to engage in planned obsolescence — the reality is that Apple’s failure to explain this decision to its customers may have misled many into upgrading their slower iPhones when they could have simply breathed new life into them by getting a new battery.
Several foreign governments came to similar conclusions as well, with Italy fining Apple €5 million and France levying an even higher fine of €25 million. In both cases, regulators didn’t weigh in on whether or not it was acceptable for Apple to throttle older iPhones — the fines were entirely because Apple failed to tell customers what it was doing.
It seems that this is the same question that this coalition of U.S. states is now trying to determine the answer to as well — whether Apple’s decision to slow down older iPhones without effectively communicating that to its customers actually violated consumer protection laws in those states, and if so, what penalties Apple should face for doing so.