Apple being investigated by French regulators over “programmed obsolescence”
Last April, Apple launched its self-repair service for residents of the USA. The service allows users to receive tools and spare parts directly from Apple in order to be able to repair their devices themselves. A handy solution for the tech-savvy who want to save a little money when their iPhone inevitably needs something fixed. In December, the service was extended across Europe.
In theory, it’s a great idea, and it seemed Apple was finally taking right-to-repair seriously. French regulators, however, disagree, citing “deceptive marketing and programmed obsolescence”. The issue stems from Apple’s practice of tying replacement parts to individual device serial numbers – which essentially changes nothing except to put the liability for the repair on the user rather than Apple itself.
The initial complaint was initiated by Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée (HOP), which translates to “Stopping Planned Obsolescence”, in December 2022, on the launch of the service in Europe. Prompted by this complaint, French prosecutors are now investigating Apple for allegedly breaking French laws introduced at the end of last year. A (translated) statement by HOP summarises the issue at hand.
This new complaint targets an increasingly widespread practice by the manufacturer: serialization ( also known as “pairing”), which consists of associating the serial numbers of the components and peripherals of a product with that of the iPhone via, in particular, microchips. This practice has recently affected the parts most frequently subject to breakdowns (screens, battery, camera, etc.). It allows the manufacturer to limit the possibilities of repair, in particular for non-approved repairers.In many cases documented in the complaint, malfunctions are found in cases where the device is repaired with a part, even identical and original, not authorized by Apple software. These can also be triggered during an update (as in the recent case of a repaired touchscreen on an iPhone XR rendered unusable after the iOS 16 update). While a simple return to iOS15 can correct this failure, Apple does not allow it, preferring to incriminate a “non-original Apple screen which causes a touch problem”. These practices undermine not only the right to repair, but also the development of smartphone refurbishment, insofar as the devices put back into circulation risk suffering from current or future malfunctions.
In short, Apple’s practices still go directly against the right-to-repair movement sweeping the globe and potentially falling foul of consumer rights and other laws in several countries. If the camera in your iPhone dies and you want to replace it, you still have to go through Apple, you have to log serial numbers for everything, and then the serial number of the new camera gets matched to your phone. Without all of the Apple red tape, your phone could stop working at any moment.
On this point, the complaint focuses in particular on the new offenses set up by the Anti-Waste Law for a Circular Economy (2020) , by denouncing the obstacles to repair and reconditioning outside approved circuits and the obstacles to access to spare parts and information, including software, allowing the repair of an iPhone
And we’re not just talking about Apple ensuring that their customers don’t get ripped off by third-party parts, either. Even genuine parts from other Apple devices can cease to function when swapped into another phone of the same model. Or, it might work for a while and then die in the next iOS update, as noted above.
Aside from the obvious headaches for users and potentially forcing early updates as they scramble to replace their dead phones, Apple’s stance only increases the number of devices and components headed for landfills around the world, unable to be repaired and unable to be cannibalised for parts to repair other devices.
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is in support of right-to-repair, stating that Apple wouldn’t even exist if not for the fact that so much tech was open and easily repairable at the company’s launch.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out for Apple and its future, especially in the follow-up to headaches Apple’s already had to endure from the EU recently.
John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.