When everything goes right, iOS users are happy when Apple introduces a useful new feature in a release of its mobile operating system. But when things go awry, Apple customers get very upset. How upset? In the case of a new iOS 9 feature called Wi-Fi Assist, upset to the tune of a $5 million class-action lawsuit.
Neil Hughes reports for Apple Insider that plaintiffs William Scott Phillips and Suzanne Schmidt Phillips have initiated a class-action lawsuit against Apple, claiming that Cupertino failed to warn users that an iOS 9 feature called Wi-Fi Assist would use data from their cellular plans. The feature is intended to ensure a smooth Internet experience by automatically switching the user to cellular data when their Wi-Fi signal becomes weak. But the lawsuit, filed in a U.S. District Court in San Jose, claims that because of the costs associated with the cellular data used by Wi-Fi Assist, the “overall amount in controversy” exceeds $5 million.
When users update their phones to iOS 9, Wi-Fi Assist is on by default. Since the release of iOS 9, some users who initially didn’t know how the feature worked, or even that it existed, have alleged that it caused them to use more data than they anticipated. The lawsuit asserts that Apple should reimburse customers for any data overages caused by their use of the feature, since the company didn’t adequately explain Wi-Fi Assist on its website until after a “flood of articles” were written on its unexpected data use.
The suit explains, “Defendant’s above corrective action, however, still downplays the possible data overcharges a user could incur,” revealing the plaintiffs’ dissatisfaction with Apple’s after-the-fact explanation. “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.”
Apple’s support page for Wi-Fi Assist explains that “Because you’ll stay connected to the Internet over cellular when you have a poor Wi-Fi connection, you might use more cellular data. For most users, this should only be a small percentage higher than previous usage.” But the document also explains that even though the feature is on by default, Wi-Fi Assist has some protections built in to keep the feature from eating up large amounts of data. Your iPhone won’t automatically switch to cellular data if you’re data roaming, only works when you have apps running in the foreground and doesn’t activate with background downloading, and doesn’t activate with “some third-party apps” that stream audio or video or download attachments, “as they might use large amounts of data.”
The lawsuit alleges that both plaintiffs incurred overage charges when they updated their iPhone 5s units to iOS 9. The suit doesn’t disclose exactly how much the charges were but does assert that the plaintiffs and other Apple customers were misled about Wi-Fi Assist’s cellular data usage. They accuse Apple of violating California’s Unfair Competition Law, the state’s False Advertising Law, and of negligent misrepresentation.
Engadget’s Jon Fingas notes that while there’s no guarantee that the lawsuit will succeed, it could end up being quite costly for Apple if it does. But even Apple’s competitors aren’t likely to want to see Apple lose, since some of them — including Samsung, LG, and HTC — have implemented similar features that boost the user experience by switching from Wi-Fi to cellular data. If the lawsuit sets a precedent by which Apple is held accountable for customers’ overages, other smartphone makers are likely to receive legal complaints.
If you’re concerned about the feature, you can turn it off by opening the Settings app, navigating to Cellular, and scrolling to the bottom to toggle the feature off. You can also change individual app settings and turn off cellular data for apps like Hulu or Netflix, which can consume a lot of data but are ones you probably only use when you’re on Wi-Fi at home. Finally, if you know that there are rooms in your house that are Wi-Fi dead zones, you can probably get to the root of the problem by troubleshooting that issue (start with the steps in our easy guide), which will improve your experience on your iPhone and on your other devices.