If you've ever had to deal with the frustration of finding some of your favorite music deleted from your iPod, you're not alone. Wiping rivals’ music was a common practice for Apple in the early days of the iPod, a company executive admitted in court on Wednesday.
Augustin Farrugia, Apple's security director, said that the tech giant routinely erased content that had not been purchased directly from the iTunes store from its customers’ devices. The practice stemmed from legitimate security concerns and was not an attempt to undermine competing music services, Farrugia testified.
'We Don’t Want to Confuse Users'
Apple is accused of deleting rivals’ music from 2007-2009, but the class-action lawsuit was actually first brought in 2005. At the time, the plaintiffs accused the company of using its proprietary DRM (digital rights management) system, FairPlay, as a way to prevent competing music vendors from entering the market.
The plaintiffs, which include both retailers and consumers seeking about $350 million in damages, are now accusing Apple of deliberately misleading customers about why their data was being wiped. That number may only be the tip of the iceberg, however. If Apple is found guilty of anti-competitive practices, it could face considerably higher penalties.
After downloading music from a non-iTunes source, such as Amazon’s music store, users saw a pop-up box the next time they synced to iTunes, telling them that had to restore their devices to their factory settings. Once they did so, they discovered that all their non-iTunes music had been deleted.
The plaintiffs are accusing Apple of being deliberately vague in its warning message to disguise the real reason for asking users to reset their devices. Farrugia countered the accusation in his testimony, but acknowledged the wording of the message was kept deliberately vague. "We don't need to give users too much information," Farrugia testified. "We don't want to confuse users."
A Legitimate Reason
How the case is decided will likely depend on whether jurors accept Apple's argument that the actions they took were for security reasons. We spoke with Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, who said the company will likely have problems with its argument. "I think their defense is going to get them into trouble," he told us.
"There was a legitimate reason to prevent music acquired from third parties to sync with iTunes," Enderle said. "Apple couldn’t know whether the user actually owned the license to [the music] or whether it was pirated and didn’t want to accept the related liability."
Nonetheless, deleting users' data is an aggressive step, and one with anti-competitive side effects. "If Apple, as the plaintiffs allege, crashed the iPods to force this in order to eliminate the music, [then] that would have been contrary to the users’ best interest and clearly an unfair trade practice," Enderle added.
Apple's argument makes even less sense when one considers the fact that Apple allows third-party files and applications to be used on its computers without deleting them, Enderle pointed out.
"Their security reason is ill advised because if you felt the need to aggressively remove music that wasn’t acquired through Apple, why wouldn’t you also aggressively remove applications that came from third parties from your PCs where the far greater security risk existed?" he asked.