Apple Hit With $5M Lawsuit Over WiFi Assist - InformationWeek
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10/26/2015
10:21 AM
Eric Zeman
Eric Zeman
Commentary
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Apple Hit With $5M Lawsuit Over WiFi Assist

California couple says cellular bills went up after Apple's new WiFi Assist feature pushed them onto LTE.

10 iPhone, iPad Apps Optimized For iOS 9
10 iPhone, iPad Apps Optimized For iOS 9
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Apple made a WiFi boo-boo, say William Scott Phillips and Suzanne Schmidt Phillips of California, and they want the iPhone maker to pay. The plaintiffs allege that WiFi Assist, a new feature added to iOS 9, booted them off WiFi in favor of LTE and subsequently boosted their cellular bills. The Phillips are seeking class action status for the lawsuit.

WiFi Assist is intended to be a helpful feature, a feature that improves the overall experience of iPhone owners around the world. In previous versions of iOS, iPhones would often attempt to use WiFi as much as possible, even when the WiFi connection was pure garbage.

Here's a good example: My in-home WiFi is fantastic and my phone jumps aboard my network whenever I'm home. At lunch time, I often walk to the corner market for a sandwich. I bring my phone with me and sometimes continue to use it as I walk. Once I get a few hundred feet from my house, the WiFi signal deteriorates and the phone will struggle to load a Web page over WiFi. That's a crummy experience, especially when one considers the bountiful and super-fast LTE signal that surrounds me.

It is in that moment that WiFi Assist springs into action. Rather than desperately cling to a useless WiFi connection that can't load a single Web page, WiFi Assist will push the iPhone off WiFi and connect via LTE instead. Voila, faster web performance and happier iPhone user.

There's one small problem: iOS 9 turns WiFi Assist on by default and many people have metered data plans.

(Image: PashaIgnatov/iStockphoto)

(Image: PashaIgnatov/iStockphoto)

In other words, hordes of iPhones have been jumping from WiFi to LTE -- unbeknownst to their owners -- and chewing through mobile data. Mobile data costs money, and a surge in use can lead to overage charges for those not paying attention to their monthly data consumption. (We'll forget for the moment that carriers are required to notify customers when they reach the 75%, 90%, and 100% thresholds of their data plans to prevent such overages.)

This is the issue that has enraged the Phillips, who believe Apple should have educated consumers about how WiFi Assist works, and left the feature off by default. Apple did offer an explanation, but not until articles appeared across the Web discussing unintended cellular data usage from consumers. It may be the carriers who are billing consumers for extra data use, but the lawsuit says Apple is responsible for the additional charges.

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Apple "downplays the possible data overcharges a user could incur," say the plaintiffs. "Reasonable and average consumers use their iPhones for streaming of music, videos, and running various applications — all of which can use significant data. Defendant's corrective statement does not disclose any basis for its conclusion that an average consumer would not see much increase in cellular usage."

The Phillips say Apple is violating California's Unfair Competition Law and California's False Advertising Law, and is guilty of negligent misrepresentation. The lawsuit doesn't say how much extra the Phillips have paid in data overages (typical amounts range from $10 to $50 per month), but they says the "overall amount in controversy exceeds" $5 million across the class.

The lawsuit was filed in the US District Court in San Jose.

What do you think? Apple's fault? Consumers' fault? The carriers' faults? Who is to blame for this mess?

Eric is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies. View Full Bio
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PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
10/30/2015 | 8:18:41 PM
Re: Apple
@ Ariella.  I think all of the players are at fault, Apple for not informing users and users for not keeping track of their data charges. I do think there could have been better ways to resolve it.  Once lawyers get involve, it is a complete different monster.  In the end, they will settle and people will continue to go crazy for all things Apple.
D J Liu
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D J Liu,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/27/2015 | 3:45:39 PM
Apple AND Carriers
All of them have a financial stake in this.

 
KarlH006
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KarlH006,
User Rank: Strategist
10/27/2015 | 10:59:56 AM
Re: Apple
So in your case here, Apple has written down somewhere in their documentation that over the course of time, the battery will not function as well as it did when it was new? Now I have not read all the information contained in the Apple documentation, and probably never will. But I will guess that any particular statement claiming poor battery life does not exist. So why was it thrown out? On what basis?

Using that same though, if it is written in the documentation that user data charges could be incurred when using WiFi Assist, is it enough to cover Apple from liability?

My opinion: A battery declining in operation over time is expected and not the fault of Apple, but rather a fact of chemical energy storage system. Conversely, a device that I previously owned that was not making autonomous decisions on whether I should use a potentially costly service over a apparent less costly is now; that is not expected.

I think Apple should fix the problem by making WiFi Assist voluntary or possibly alerting that your WiFi signal is poor and allow you to make the choice. (Simple fix but possibly annoying) At that point the law suit would be moot and settling would be senseless or possibly for pennies.
Banacek
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Banacek,
User Rank: Ninja
10/27/2015 | 10:39:04 AM
Great feature, poor name and implementation
This is a feature I've wished the stupid phone had for years. I'm tired of going outside my office building for a walk and having to manually turn off my wi-fi to get the internet to work reliably.

On the other hand, I don't get the name. "Wi-fi assist" sounds like it is trying to make wi-fi better, not turn off wi-fi. "Internet assist" would be a better name than the first (when I heard the feature name, my first thought was "Oh great, now they're going to try to keep the wi-fi enable even longer!").

The second problem is turning it on by default. For me, I don't care. I still have an unlimited data plan (for $30) from AT&T that I got with my first iphone :-). But for most people, it's rather stupid on apple's part.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
10/27/2015 | 10:38:05 AM
Re: Apple
@Banceck it's not like they've never settled before. Check out the Home Page of the Apple iPhone/iPod touch Warranty Litigation Settlement Website Case No. 3:10-cv-01610-RS for one example. Another is the antitrust lawsuit over no-hire agreements in Silicon Valley. Apple wasn't alone in that one, as the $415 million suit included Google, and possibly some others. 
Banacek
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Banacek,
User Rank: Ninja
10/27/2015 | 10:32:58 AM
Re: Apple
it would NOT be wise for Apple to settle, unless it goes to class-action status. Settling on this opens them up to tons of other lawsuits on every thing in their system that might be a cost to the user.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
10/26/2015 | 2:34:38 PM
Re: Apple
@Stratustician that's just the problem, so many features are set to be on for default, pushing the onus on people to opt out rather than giving them informed consent to opt in. That's why I think they could have a valid claim, and Apple would be wise to settle. 
Stratustician
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Stratustician,
User Rank: Ninja
10/26/2015 | 2:27:23 PM
Re: Apple
I think the issue is that by default, the update that introduced WiFi Assist had it enabled.  This means many users weren't aware it was switched on until they came across a post on social media about it, or had heard about it another way.  Personally, had they had the feature built in, but disabled by default, it probably wouldn't have been as big of an issue as the intitial data shock charges wouldn't have been there.  You would have consciously had to turn the feature on.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
10/26/2015 | 1:13:38 PM
Re: Apple
@melgross if there are regulations about consumer warnings, I don't think it suffices for a company to say that they can read about them on their site. I agree that people are lazy, but the law does put the onus on the companies rather than the consumer. It's for that reason that credit card statements now put in big print warnings that if you choose to pay just the minimum payment, you can end up paying X over time. For example, on my statement, it warns me that if I go for the minimum, my total cost over 15 years would be $6,473.  Shouldn't anyone who uses a credit card realize that? Sure, but someone must have said that it isn't enough to assume that understanding. 
melgross
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melgross,
User Rank: Ninja
10/26/2015 | 1:02:40 PM
Re: Apple
I've always felt that people should read up on new products they buy. Apple does include an up to date user guide on their devices that can be accessed. They can, and should, go to Apple's site and read about the product, either before, or shortly after purchase. I find it sad that people these days are so lazy, that they expect every detail about something to be force fed to them. This reminds me of the case a few years ago when a guy sued Apple over the fact that his several year old phone no longer held a full battery charge. He sued Apple for that. The judge did the right thing and threw the case out, stating that everyone knows that rechargable batteries don't last forever. This should be thrown out as well.
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