Italian Regulators Slap Apple with $12 Million Fine Over iPhone Water-Resistance

iPhone Water Resistance and Cleaning Credit: EugeneEdge / Shutterstock
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Apple is once again in heat with European regulators, this time regarding its claims of how waterproof its iPhone models are, with Italy’s antitrust watchdog hitting the iPhone maker with a €10 million ($12 million) fine for “aggressive and misleading” commercial practices.

At the center of this particular controversy is the fact that while Apple has advertised that its iPhones are water-resistant, it failed to add the necessary disclaimers that said that this was only the case under specific controlled laboratory conditions.

Italy’s competition regulator, L’Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato (AGCM), published its decision (Google Translate) citing Apple for both failing to properly inform consumers of the nature of its water-resistance claims while also failing to live up to its warranty obligations.

The complaint actually goes all the way back to the 2017 iPhone 8 lineup — the first iPhone models to receive an IP68 certification for water resistance — maintaining that Apple had consistently failed to disclose the fact that such water resistance didn’t necessarily apply in the range of circumstances under which normal customers were likely to use their iPhones.

For example, while Apple said its iPhones were water-resistant at a depth of between one to four meters for up to 30 minutes, this was only the case with static and pure water, and didn’t factor in running water, dirt, chemicals, miscellaneous contaminants, and other things that would be more likely to be found in the real world if a user were to drop their iPhone into a toilet or a lake.

IP68 Water Resistance

Ingress Protection (IP) standards, can only be certified under laboratory conditions anyway, however manufacturers are given a fair bit of room to determine their own testing methodologies. An “IP” rating, such as “IP68” defines in numerical values protection against solid particles such as dust (the first digit) and protection against ingress of liquids (the second digit), on scales of 1–6 and 1–9, respectively.

In the case of the iPhone’s IP68 rating, this means that it’s “dust-tight” (6) meaning that there should be complicit protection against any small particles entering the internal electronics of the iPhone, and/or that it can withstand immersion in up to a minimum of three feet of water for more than 30 minutes (8). Technically speaking, the IP68 rating exceeds the IP67 level below only insofar as the combination of depth and duration is greater than the IP67 baseline of three feet and 30 minutes.

However, the IP68 rating, in particular, leaves a fair bit of latitude for the manufacturer to establish the testing conditions, and in the case of the iPhone, it seems that Apple only rated the iPhone as IP68 under the most perfectly ideal conditions: still and non-contaminated water, and that it failed to conduct even laboratory tests that simulated real-world conditions.

More to the point, however, Apple also failed to disclose this fact, even as a footnote in its iPhone specification pages, simply claiming the water resistance numbers without offering any context whatsoever.

Contradictory Warranty Policies

The AGCM also pointed to Apple’s failure to stand behind its claims in the form of its warranty coverage as evidence of the fact that the iPhone maker knew from the outset that its claims were deceptive and misleading.

In this case, the Italian regulator actually quite deservedly called out Apple for something that’s always been a mystery to most iPhone owners — the fact that despite claiming IP68 water resistance, Apple will not service an iPhone under warranty if there’s been any evidence of water damage.

While a somewhat valid argument can be made in defense of Apple’s warranty policy in that water shouldn’t be able to get inside an iPhone, and therefore the presence of water implies that the user has done something to damage their iPhone that would invalidate their warranty anyway, or used it beyond the IP68 rating (e.g. going scuba-diving with an iPhone would certainly be a problem), the reality is that this argument still doesn’t entirely hold water.

After all, in the absence of any evidence showing that seals and other water-resistant components were actually damaged through misuse or neglect on the part of an iPhone owner, then the only reasonable conclusion is that the seals failed on their own, and are therefore not only a warranty issue in and of themselves, but by extension, any damage that occurs to an iPhone as a result of the failure of its water-resistant seals should still be Apple’s responsibility.

It’s a sticky problem, of course, as it’s also impossible for Apple to determine if somebody really was pushing their iPhone beyond the normal limits of its water resistance, but the AGCM is definitely siding with the consumer on this one, noting that Apple’s refusal to provide warranty assistance to water-damaged iPhones actually violates its consumer rights laws, particularly in light of Apple’s claims that the iPhone is supposed to be water-resistant and able to withstand immersion in water.

Like many electronics manufacturers, Apple has been installing indicators inside of its iPhones that will let technicians know if water has actually gotten inside of the device, and it’s Apple’s policy to automatically deny standard warranty service to an iPhone that has one of these indicators activated, although such iPhones will still be eligible for repair or replacement using a paid damage incident for those with AppleCare+ coverage.

However, as the AGCM notes, the problem is basically that users who are buying an iPhone are told that it’s water-resistant, implying that since Apple is making this claim it will stand behind it, but then when trying to get after-sales service they discover that maybe their iPhone wasn’t as waterproof as they thought it was. The regulator claimed that this constituted an “aggressive” commercial practice by essentially marketing a feature that the company is unwilling to actually stand behind.

As for how waterproof Apple’s iPhones actually are, we’ve long recommended that you exercise due caution and try to avoid getting your iPhone wet. Even the Apple Watch, which actually is certified to be swim-proof, has its limitations.

In the case of the iPhone, the waterproofing should be seen as a feature designed to protect you from accidents rather than as a part of your lifestyle; while you may get lucky, as in the case of this iPhone 11 that survived weeks at the bottom of a lagoon, it’s certainly not something that’s guaranteed, so we’d definitely recommend a waterproof case for your iPhone if you regularly engage in watersports or other aquatic activities.

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