Apple faces lawsuit over data bills tied to Wi-Fi Assist

Customers with unexpected data bills linked to Apple's Wi-Fi Assist feature are taking the iPhone maker to federal court.

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Wi-Fi Assist lets iPhones automatically switch to using data when Wi-Fi signal drops.

Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Apple is facing a lawsuit over a new software feature that lets iPhones switch to cellular data when the Wi-Fi signal is weak.

Wi-Fi Assist has provoked complaints from customers since Apple introduced the feature in mid-September with the latest version of its iOS software for iPhones and iPads. Many have complained that Wi-Fi Assist is switched on by default in iOS 9 without them knowing it, causing them to run up large data bills while they think their iPhones are relying on Wi-Fi.

A couple who has been on the receiving end of such a bill on Friday filed a complaint, first spotted by AppleInsider, in US District Court in San Jose, California. William Scott Phillips and Suzanne Schmidt Phillips, both of Edgewater, Florida, say that because they didn't know about the feature, Apple should be responsible for picking up their bill, as well as the bill of any others like them. The plaintiffs are seeking class action status for their lawsuit. Their filing contends that the overuse charges top $5 million for everyone affected.

Wi-Fi Assist is designed to give iPhone users the smoothest and most consistent experience possible when using the Internet. Some Apple customers are pleased that Wi-Fi Assist allows them to stay online even when their Wi-Fi signal drops. Others, especially those with low-usage data plans, have complained about unexpected charges on their phone bill.

The mixed reactions to the feature led the Cupertino, California, company to publish an online guide to Wi-Fi Assist in early October.

"Because you'll stay connected to the Internet over cellular when you have a poor Wi-Fi connection, you might use more cellular data," it explained. "For most users, this should only be a small percentage higher than previous usage."

For the plaintiffs, though, the explanation is too little, too late. The lawsuit, which has been uploaded in its entirety to Scribd, claims that the couple only found out about the potential for extra charges when articles and tweets started appearing about Wi-Fi Assist. They also say that video and music streaming consumes high quantities of data and that Apple's "corrective statement does not disclose any basis for its conclusion that an average consumer would not see much increase in cellular usage."

The lawsuit accuses Apple of violating California's Unfair Competition Law and its False Advertising Law, as well as of negligent misrepresentation. Despite rival smartphone manufacturers, including Samsung, LG and HTC, offering similar features on their own devices, only Apple is on the receiving end of a legal complaint.

To turn off Wi-Fi Assist on your iPhone, go to "Settings," select "Cellular" or "Mobile Data," scroll down to the bottom and adjust the "Wi-Fi Assist" toggle.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

The company has, in the past, dealt with consumer lawsuits over its products. In August, a court ruled in Apple's favor, when a judge denied class action status to a suit alleging the company did not always deliver iMessages to Android phones.

Apple doesn't win every such action, but it also does not shy away from mounting a tough defense in court. Rarely does Apple choose to settle out of court, and even more rarely does it comment publicly on legal issues.

Correction, 12 p.m. PT: This story and its headline initially misstated the status of the Wi-Fi Assist lawsuit. It is seeking class action status. Also, this story has been updated to clarify the August ruling in favor of Apple in a separate consumer suit. The judge denied that suit class action status.

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