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France is investigating Apple for slowing down old iPhones

France is investigating Apple for slowing down old iPhones
A person checks out an iPhone 6 in 2014. (Christophe Ena / Associated Press)

French authorities have opened an investigation into Apple Inc. over revelations it secretly slowed down older versions of its iPhones, the Paris prosecutor's office said Tuesday.

The preliminary investigation was opened last week over alleged "deception and planned obsolescence" of some Apple products, the office said. It is led by the French body in charge of fraud control, which is part of the finance ministry.

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It follows a legal complaint filed in December by a French consumer rights group whose aim is to stop the intentional obsolescence of goods by companies.

In France it is illegal to intentionally shorten the lifespan of a product in order to encourage customers replace it. A 2015 law makes that a crime, with penalties of up to two years in prison and fines of up to 5% of the company's annual revenue.

Apple apologized in December for secretly slowing down older iPhones, a move it said was necessary to avoid unexpected shutdowns related to battery fatigue.

"We have never — and would never — do anything to intentionally shorten the life of any Apple product, or degrade the user experience to drive customer upgrades," the company said on its website.

Apple France didn't respond to email and phone requests for comment on the latest legal developments in France.

Lawsuits against Apple also have been filed in the U.S. and Israel.

The French consumer rights group, called HOP, filed a lawsuit Dec. 27. It alleges Apple slowed down older smartphones in order to make clients buy the new iPhone 8, which was launched on the market around the same time, according to HOP's statement.

Benchmark tests have suggested the slowdown isn't huge but is noticeable. Although Apple has said that's done to prevent iPhones from unexpectedly shutting down because of weak batteries, lawsuits filed against Apple say that its failure to disclose that right away could have led some people to wrongly conclude they needed a newer, faster phone rather than just a new battery.

Laetitia Vasseur, the director of HOP, said studies have shown that peaks in speed reductions match the releases of new phones on the market.

"We can see that there is an intention to have people buy new phones because of the speed reduction," she said.

Vasseur said her group launched a survey after its complaint so users can report problems they have faced. In 10 days, HOP has received more than 3,000 reports that will be handed over to the government fraud watchdog in charge of the investigation, she said.

Vasseur said she hopes the consequences globally could be to go toward more sustainable and durable products "for all manufacturers that won't want to face the same kind of scandal."

A similar investigation targeting Japanese printer-maker Epson was opened in November, also after a complaint by HOP.

The Epson investigation — launched by another prosecutor's office, in Nanterre outside Paris — is related to some of its ink cartridges and printers' spare parts. It was the first legal action ever for planned obsolescence and deception in France, HOP said.

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Epson has denied any wrongdoing, saying that planned obsolescence is not part of its policy.

In the French legal system, preliminary investigations are launched and led by prosecutors' offices. Such probes can last weeks or months. When they're over, prosecutors can either decide to drop the cases or to send them to investigating judges for full investigations. Judges, in turn, can also dismiss the cases — for instance, due to lack of evidence — or send them to courts for trial. In these cases, the whole process may last months or even years.

The Epson and Apple cases are the first legal actions in France over alleged planned obsolescence, so there is not yet case law on possible penalties, fines or damages awarded by courts under this particular offense.

UPDATES:

10:45 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional information.

This article was originally published at 7 a.m.

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