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David vs Goliath: The tiny French consumer group taking on Apple

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David vs Goliath: The tiny French consumer group taking on Apple
Photo: HOP/Apple
09:30 CET+01:00
Behind France's criminal investigation into Apple's deliberate slowdown of its iPhones lies a tiny consumer rights organisation that has the world's biggest technology groups in its sights.

Using landmark French legislation that makes it a criminal offence to deliberately cut short the life of a product, the group Stop Planned Obsolescence, known by its French initials HOP, is hoping to score a victory for consumers everywhere.

Prosecutors in Paris announced late Monday that they had opened a probe into suspected fraud by Apple, acting on a complaint by HOP that the California-based group cheated consumers by deliberately slowing down its phones.

"It's a first victory for consumers," the head of the group, Samuel Sauvage, told AFP on Tuesday.

"The opening of an investigation shows that the evidence is sufficiently solid. It's a positive sign from the prosecutor's office."

Apple has declined to comment on the probe while the French prosecutor's office will now have to determine whether there are grounds to bring charges -- a process that is expected to be lengthy and possibly fruitless.

The company denies incorporating planned obsolescence in its products in a bid to nudge customers into upgrading their phones.

It has admitted slowing its flagship iPhones phones down, but says this was intended to extend their battery life.

Technology and consumer goods have long been suspected of building in the expiry of their products so that consumers will be forced to replace them.

This so-called "planned obsolescence" is decried by consumer groups as unethical and the cause of mountains of unrecyclable waste each year, but experts warn it is very difficult to prove.

France's Apple probe follows a separate one launched last month into Epson which will look into whether the Japanese printer maker forces consumers to buy new ink cartridges before the old ones are empty.

France is thought to be the only country in the world to have passed legislation banning planned obsolescence via a 2015 law named after former education minister and green campaigner Benoit Hamon.

Angry customers in the US and Israel are however also using consumer protection laws to take Apple to court over the iPhone slowdown.

HOP, which counts just one full-time employee and around 20 volunteers, is using Hamon's law to encourage manufacturers and consumers to repair their devices rather than throw them away.

Their aim is a "consumer revolution and a change in company behaviour so that they think about a consumption model that is more environmentally friendly," Sauvage says.

HOP has compiled complaints from 3,000 consumers about Apple, which will be sent to the prosecutor's office, and the group hopes more people will now come forward about other devices.

As well as printer companies, manufacturers of household white goods are now on their hitlist, Sauvage warns.

Prison sentences

Under French law a company found to be deliberately shortening the life of its products can be fined up to five percent of its annual sales while executives can face up to two years in jail.

Last month Apple confirmed what critics had suspected for years: that it intentionally slows performance of older iPhones as their batteries weaken with age.

The company said this was to extend the performance of the phone, which uses less power when running at slower speeds, and was to prevent unexpected shutdowns due to a low battery charge.

Last month it apologised for slowing older models and said it would discount replacement batteries for some handsets.

"We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down. We apologize," Apple said in a message to customers on its website.

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