Tuesday

16th Jul 2019

Investigation

How Apple lobbied EU to delay common smartphone charger

  • Most phones sold today use micro-USB plugs for charging, but not Apple's high-end gadget (Photo: wikimedia)

Phone batteries are the scourge of modern life. Their short lifespan often cuts us off from our most valued tool.

iPhone users suffer in particular.

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  • The 'Unique Selling Point' of the iPhone's charge plug is simply that it's unique (Photo: Flickr)

Most phones sold today use micro-USB plugs for charging, but not Apple's high-end gadget.

If you're out of juice at a friend's house, your iPhone can't use a charger made for the more commonly used Android products.

This is annoying for consumers and harmful for the environment. Old chargers produce more than 51,000 tons of electronic waste per year, the European Commission estimates.

A common charger for phones would make it easier to re-use old devices and save money.

The European Commission has pushed for a universal charger for a decade, yet a solution remains elusive.

Newly-published documents show why. Some 150 emails, meeting minutes and reports released under the EU's Freedom of Information law reveal Apple's campaign to stop the common charger.

Back to the Future

The story starts in 2009.

Guenther Verheugen, then the EU's industry commissioner, calls for Europe to become a model for the world.

"We're assuming this new European initiative will have a knock-on effect globally and manufacturers won't just be doing this on the European market," Verheugen tells reporters.

Back then, phones came with over 30 different chargers. Verheugen asks manufacturers to agree on a common standard for smartphones, then still a novelty.

From the start, the European Commission insists on self-regulation.

The commission scores a win early on. In June 2009, ten leading manufacturers including Nokia, Samsung and Apple sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).

They commit to "provide chargers compatib[le] on the basis of the micro-USB connector." Within two years, around 90 per cent of new smartphones can be charged with micro-USB plugs.

But the plug never becomes universal.

The memorandum allows manufacturers to use their own connector if they, in principle, offer an adaptor – a loophole added 'to accommodate' Apple, as a commission official later notes.

The company will duly exploit it.

To this day, Apple keeps its own plugs.

From 2012, Apple fits new iPhones with a connector called Lightning.

It is proprietary, so other companies can only produce charging equipment for its phones with Apple's permission. Lightning is used in all new iPhones.

The iPhone: Apple's best-selling product

Apple first introduces the iPhone in 2007.

It becomes its best-selling product, with a global turnover of $54bn [€48bn] last quarter alone, and transforms Apple from a producer of high-end computers to a phone maker. One in six phones sold in Europe today are iPhones.

Apple has a strong presence in Brussels.

It spends about one million euros a year for lobbying. Apple is a paying member of 14 business groups including the Fair Standards Alliance and DigitalEurope, which lobby on behalf of their members.

Apple's refusal to adopt the common charger does not keep the commission from celebrating.

In 2011, Antonio Tajani, Verheugen's successor as industry commissioner, praises "the new EU standard" as "genuine good news for consumers".

The commission even produces a video entitled Life is easy when one solution satisfies all in five languages.

In a letter to a British MEP in late 2012, Tajani defends Apple's loophole.

As long as the company offers an adaptor for its plug, it does not violate its commitments, he writes – even if such an adaptor is a costly extra purchase. "[T]he commission cannot and should not interfere on the marketing strategies of manufacturers."

Yet behind closed doors, commission officials urge Apple to drop Lightning, or at least provide free adaptors with all its products. "We are aware of the perception by parts of the public and MEPs that Apple ignores the MoU", an official writes in a briefing note.

New commissioner, no action

The lack of progress frustrates MEPs.

In 2014, the European parliament passes the Radio Equipment Directive, which calls for a "renewed effort to develop a common charger".

Previously, mandating a common charger required a new law. The directive gives the commission the power to directly set technical standards by means of a delegated act.

After the 2014 election, Elzbieta Bienkowska takes over as the commissioner responsible for the common charger. Officials tell Apple it has to get its act together.

"[T]he perception among the citizens and the European Parliament is that the common charger does not really exist, and looking at what we find among the most popular smartphones, we have to agree with them. The future MoU must be clear in its outcome, we cannot afford to admit adaptors", a member of Bienkowska's cabinet notes ahead of a meeting with Apple.

Apple flatly refuses.

The company claims in a leaflet given to the commission that conforming to a device-side standard would cost them up to €2bn and hamper innovation.

Apple says their slim devices can not fit the new USB-C plug, which is widely seen as best way to replace the now somewhat dated Micro-USB.

The commission is doubtful of these claims.

"Apple has alleged that USB Type-C connector would be too thick for their smartphone. However, other manufacturers do not understand why the USB Type-C connector would be too small [thick] for smartphones; […] We would welcome factual evidence by Apple (or anybody else) demonstrating that within these devices the use of USB-Type C would be impossible if this is really the case", a top official was told to tell industry representatives.

DigitalEurope, the trade group, offers a "letter of intent" to address the situation.

But a draft sent to the commission in late 2015 keeps the loophole for Apple.

All manufacturers would be "ready to sign an agreement" on using solely USB-C connectors, "except Apple", an official notes in late 2016.

The commission rejects calls to use its power to regulate.

It sticks with its position that the industry will regulate itself.

The commission was "working with the manufacturers in order to achieve a suitable voluntary agreement", officials tell consumer advocates in early 2018.

Kicking can down the road

Last summer, finally, an end to charger-chagrin seems near.

Margrethe Vestager, EU competition commissioner and Apple's bane after handing the company a €13bn fine for its tax affairs in Ireland, criticises the "unsatisfactory progress with this voluntary approach" in a reply to the EU parliament.

Shortly after, 30 MEPs ask the commission in a letter to take swift action to enforce a common standard by law.

But commissioner Bienkowska decides otherwise.

In late 2018 she announces a new impact assessment on common charger – almost ten years after the policy was first announced.

Results are expected in the fall of 2019, as Bienkowska will leave office.

It is unclear what, or if, the next commissioner will act.

Meanwhile, officials keep their faith in self-regulation. "The commission favours voluntary agreements that are ambitious and have the support of all industry stakeholders", a spokesperson tells EUobserver.

Consumer advocates are deeply disappointed with the commission's approach.

"It is a sad truth that it often requires mandatory rules to achieve change", says Frederico Da Silva from the European consumer organisation BEUC.

"We have right from the start advocated for binding rules and that is what should have happened many years ago", Da Silva says.

"Impact assessments and studies should not become a fig leaf to delay decisions. What we need now is the political will to tackle this issue."

Consumer advocates warn that the market could fragment again.

ANEC, an NGO pushing for standardisation, is concerned that the advent of wireless charging will mean a return to fragmentation.

Indeed, Apple reportedly patented a new charging connector recently.

Meanwhile, Apple claims to have shipped a billion devices with a Lightning plug.

A new solution should not "render obsolete the devices and accessories used by many millions of Europeans", the company argued in a public statement in January.

Apple refused to comment for this piece on further patents, or the memorandum of understanding, but did provide a statement saying: "Apple stands for innovation. Regulations that would drive conformity across the type of connector built into all smartphones freeze innovation rather than encourage it. Such proposals are bad for the environment and unnecessarily disruptive for customers.

"Beginning in 2009, Apple led industry efforts to work together to promote a common charging solution. And with the emergence of USB Type-C, we have committed alongside six other companies that all new smartphone models will leverage this standard through a connector or a cable assembly. We believe this collective effort by many of the industry's leading companies is better for innovation, better for consumers and better for the environment."

The EU's failure to regulate, in essence, provides Apple with an argument to keep their own solution.

For Apple, the common charger is a success story – of regulation avoided. For the next commission, it could serve as a cautioning tale on the limits of self-regulation.

Author bio

Alexander Fanta is an EU correspondent for netzpolitik.org, a German news website covering digital rights issues where this article first appeared in German.

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