A new class action lawsuit has been filed in California, accusing Apple of deliberately “breaking” FaceTime for iOS 6 users in order to force them to upgrade to iOS 7, thereby violating California’s unfair competition laws, AppleInsider reports. Citing documents disclosed in the VirnetX patent lawsuit, the class-action filing alleges that Apple secretly took this step in order to reduce high monthly data relay charges it was incurring from Akamai as a result of the “relay method” being used at the time to handle some FaceTime calls between iOS devices, which transmitted FaceTime data through Akamai’s servers — a relay service which Apple was paying for based on usage.
Although traffic relayed through Akamai originally accounted for only a relatively small percentage of FaceTime traffic, with Apple’s alternative direct device-to-device FaceTime implementation being used for most FaceTime calls, Apple was forced to discontinue the direct mode after it was found guilty of infringing patents owned by VirnetX in late 2012. As a result, relay traffic increased significantly, to the point where Apple was reportedly incurring multi-million dollar fees from Akamai — testimony in the 2016 VirnetX trial estimated relay fees at about $50 million per month in 2013.
The new class-action lawsuit outlines that the amount of money being paid to Akamai for the relay service was of concern to Apple executives, noting that an internal email was even circulated among Apple employees with the subject “Ways to Reduce Data Usage.” In developing iOS 7, Apple engineers were able to include a method of peer-to-peer FaceTime communication that didn’t infringe on the VirnetX patents, however, Apple was either unable to unwilling to bring these improvements into an iOS 6 update. Based on internal emails and sworn testimony from the VirnetX case, the new class-action lawsuit claims that Apple made plans to deliberately “break” FaceTime on older iOS versions by forcing a key digital certificate used for FaceTime to expire prematurely. The lawsuit alleges that Apple implemented the “FaceTime Break” on Apr. 16, 2014, blaming the sudden incompatibility on a bug, and advising users that they would need to update to the latest version of iOS to resolve the issue.
The lawsuit also cites an email conversation between Apple engineers as evidence that the company chose to “break” FaceTime deliberately as a result of relay fees being paid to Akamai. The alleged email from an engineer to an engineering manager within Apple reads, “[Akamai] was a big user of relay bandwidth. We broke iOS 6, and the only way to get FaceTime working again is to upgrade to iOS 7.”
While Apple’s statistics show only 11 percent of compatible devices were running iOS 6 in April 2014, users on those devices who wanted to use the FaceTime feature had no choice but to update to iOS 7.0.4, which allegedly “fixed” the issue. The lawsuit cites circumstantial evidence and media reports in claiming that the forced upgrade was “too much of a burden” for older hardware such as the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S models, rendering those devices unusable with the new iOS update. The lawsuit alleges that for this reason, users who owned those particular iPhone models were harmed as a result of Apple’s actions, and that Apple is liable for “trespass to chattels” under California law by internationally interfering with another person’s possessions.
Interestingly, the class-action lawsuit does not mention the iPod touch at all, on which FaceTime was rendered completely unusable due to Apple’s alleged decision to “break” the technology. The fourth-generation iPod touch was unsupported by iOS 7, resulting in iPod touch users having no option available to use FaceTime at all at that time. Although Apple eventually released a fix in iOS 6.1.5 in Nov. 2013, iPod touch users were left with an unusable feature on their devices for well over a year. It’s also worth noting that this update was released only for the fourth-generation iPod touch, and was not made available for the iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S.