Apple sued in Belgium over guarantee misconduct

A consumer organization sued Apple because the company did not respond to its demands

Belgian consumer organization Test-Aankoop has sued Apple, accusing the company of violating Belgian guarantee law.

The organization sued Apple because it is presenting consumers with misleading information about guarantees, Test-Aankoop's European public affairs advisor Gilles de Halleux said Tuesday.

Belgian law says sellers must provide a two-year guarantee that products have no defects at the time of sale, said De Halleux. In the first six months of that period, the seller must repair or replace a faulty device without the need for the consumer to prove the manufacturer was at fault, he said. After six months, the consumer has to prove that it was the manufacturer's fault that the device broke, he said.

Apple however guarantees the products its sells in Belgium for one year against defects appearing after delivery, offering on-site repair or replacement, including internationally, and offers 90 days' telephone support. On top of that, Apple invites customers to buy an AppleCare warranty extending that coverage to three years (or two for iPhones, iPads and iPods), with additional replacement options and telephone support for the duration of the warranty.

While AppleCare offers additional protection in the second and third years after purchase, De Halleux said there is potential for confusion when consumers are unaware that they are already legally entitled to some of that protection in the second year.

"The problem is that Apple of course has an interest to sell these guarantee extensions. And they do not provide sufficient information about the legal rights of the consumer," De Halleux said.

"If you for example buy an iPad on Apple's website you are proposed to buy the extension of the guarantee," De Halleux said. But the characters promoting AppleCare are very big, he said. "And in very small letters at the bottom of the page you can read that this does not preclude any of the legal rights. That is not fair, it is misleading."

Test-Aankoop asked Apple to represent information about the legal guarantee in a more objective way, so that it can be understood by people who are not legal professionals, said De Halleux. While Apple at the moment does state on its website that Apple's guarantee does not preclude the law, it does that in such a way that it is confusing for consumers, he added.

After the organization raised the issue with Apple, the company sent Test-Aankoop a letter saying that "everything was fine and they did not see the problem," De Halleux said. That is why the case was taken to court, he said.

The consumer organization also "has the feeling" that Apple instructed the resellers in its distribution network not to inform consumers properly of their legal rights, De Halleux said. His organization noticed that consumers were not informed properly when they sent their own people into shops to test this, he added.

Test-Aankoop wants the court to order Apple to change information given on its website and to order Apple resellers to properly inform consumers of their rights, he said. The consumer organization will use this lawsuit as a test case, if the outcome is successful, it will use similar tactics against other companies, De Halleux said.

Apple stopped selling AppleCare in Italy after the company was handed a ¬900,000 (US$1.15 million) fine by the Italian Antitrust Authority for not providing consumers with enough information about their European Union protected guarantee rights, and pushing its own paid-for warranty instead. The Italian case is used as an example by Test-Aankoop.

The warranty problems reached E.U. level last year when Commissioner Viviane Reding wrote to all 27 member states asking them to "examine closely Apple's advertising of product warranty practices" for any similar misleading behavior. 

At that time, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain had filed complaints against Apple with Reding's office.

This inquiry hasn't resulted in an official E.U. probe yet, said Mina Andreeva, Reding's spokeswoman, in an email. "The first step was to bring this to the attention of ministers and see if or what they are doing to enforce the rules," she said, adding that when Reding sent her letter it was far from clear that this was something that was problematic in all E.U. countries.

"We are still in the process of receiving replies and analyzing them. Once we have a complete picture of what is happening in the E.U. countries we will decide if any follow-up is needed," she said. The European Commission is planning to take stock of developments during the European Consumer summit on March 19, when all national consumer organizations meet, she said.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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