Batterygate' class-action suit settlement marks a missed opportunity. PHOTO BY TYLER LASTOVICH ON UNSPLASH
In the past week, news outlets quietly announced Apple’s settlement of a class-action lawsuit over 2017’s ‘Batterygate’. The lawsuit was filed when Apple’s software updates resulted in the throttling of iPhones with older batteries, in effect slowing down older models, leading users to believe that they needed to replace their phones.
Although the estimated $25 per person payout may seem like a small victory for proponents of Fair Tech, it’s time that the public actually has its day in court versus Apple or one of these other manufacturers (looking at you, Sonos.) Surprisingly, for a country where consumers seem coddled and over-warned—just Google “stupid warning labels”—folks don’t have much recourse when it comes to planned obsolescence, especially since US courts seem comfortable treating it as just another business model, basically saying that manufacturers are not accountable for products beyond the warranty date, even where expectations of continuing quality and/or durability are reasonable. At a time when we know more about the environmental impact of our electronic devices, this seems archaic. Today, there are more factors at stake than a business’ bottom line and we, as a nation, need to explore how our evolving values can be adequately reflected by our regulations.
A Very Ineffective Safety Net
At this point in time, the closest thing we currently have to regulation against planned obsolescence is the implied warranty of merchantability that comes with every product sold (where the warranty hasn’t been actively disclaimed). This implied warranty includes the “normal durability” that could be reasonably expected given a type of product and its price. The trouble is that in the context of planned obsolescence, normal durability is meaningless because in the end, it’s not the iPhone user who decides whether they should be able to expect more than 2 or 3 years out of their $1,000 investment—it’s Apple. An article published by Larry DiMatteo and Stefan Wrbka in Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy neatly sums up the situation:
“The problem with planned obsolescence is that the purchaser is no longer able to use price as a surrogate for quality or, more minimally, for the durability of products. Planned obsolescence, generally an industry wide phenomenon, often results in the reduction of durability (less than is achievable using state of the art design and materials) across product categories and brands within a given category of products. This diminishment of the state of art is motivated by the manufacturers seeking to increase future sales or repairs.”
In other words, people can’t expect to get what they pay for. The brazen moves on the part of tech manufacturers like Apple, Samsung and more recently, Sonos, to render older devices obsolete is worrying. Add in the fact that technology continues to become more complicated and less transparent, and that these companies are lobbying to limit the public’s Right to Repair, and it seems that the time is ripe to bring this issue to either the judiciary or to the legislature.
For groups like U.S. PIRG that are already pushing for Right to Repair laws, perhaps it’s time to begin looking seriously into how planned obsolescence can be effectively countered—whether it’s through laws inspired by those currently found in France (whose laws criminalize the shortening of a product’s life for the purpose of encouraging more sales) and across the European Union (where laws on ecodesign, the use of natural resources, and the circular economy afford consumers some protection against planned obsolescence) or by the expansion of current warranty laws to be more protective.
For the average consumer, it means remaining vigilant, knowing that manufacturers need to be held in check. It should also mean supporting the Right to Repair so that we aren’t so fully dependent on these big manufacturers. And finally, it means, at some point, bringing a lawsuit forward with the intention of seeing it through to the very end.