Apple created a way to delete MP3s from its customers' iPods. When I first read reports from the trial, I found this almost impossible to believe.
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Apple forcibly deleted MP3s from iPods without informing its customers

January 11, 2015

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2015, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2015, The Post-Standard

A decade ago, an Apple Store "specialist" -- in other words, a college-age kid wearing an Apple T-shirt -- told me what seemed like the most ridiculous thing. iPods, she said, would be damaged by playing music from a source other than Apple. In other words, if you fill your iPod with MP3s you got off the Internet, your iPod will stop working. It will be your own fault, and Apple won't fix it under warranty.

At that time, I had no idea why someone would say such a stupid thing. Music files can't damage a device. Besides, Apple even designed the iPod to play MP3s, among other music files -- and didn't sell or give away any MP3s of its own. How could you play MP3s without getting them from some place other than Apple?

What on earth was going on?

Now I know. In an antitrust trial last month, Apple's war against MP3s and those who play them was brought into the light. Even Apple Store employees became soldiers in this battle, reciting the company line.

A quick explanation first. MP3s are files that contain music, in the same sort of way that JPGs are files that contain pictures. MP3s and JPGs are immensely popular because the music in MP3s and the photos in JPGs are compressed to make them easier to share. They don't take up much space and can be downloaded quickly.

When Apple came up with a music store for its popular iPod, Steve Jobs wanted to keep iPod users from sharing their music. No copying and no sharing. Period.

So Apple put a lock on all the music in the store. Using a rival for MP3 called AAC, Apple inserted a code into each piece of music that made it unplayable except by the original purchaser. There were exceptions for families, so that sis could play music bought by dad, that sort of thing; but basically Apple's method made sharing outside of families very difficult.

This method of trying to block sharing was used by other companies, too. It's called Digital Rights Management, or DRM. At the time, it seemed like a paranoid way to sell entertainment. (To be fair to Apple and Steve Jobs, the dreaded DRM was removed later from all the music Apple sells.)

Last month's antitrust trial, in which Apple was accused of unfair competition, brought another Apple tactic into the light. Apple created a way to delete MP3s from its customers' iPods. When I first read reports from the trial, I found this almost impossible to believe.

These weren't Apple's files to start with. After all, Apple does not sell MP3s or even give them away, so everyone with MP3s on their iPod got them somewhere else, and that means they didn't belong to Apple no matter what. (In my own case, I had hundreds of MP3s on my main iPod, including some I had bought.)

Surely, I thought when I read the trial reports, Apple wouldn't delete something it had no right to touch.

But it did. When Apple's music software found MP3s on an iPod, a message popped up saying the iPod needed a factory reset. This was a false message, what my dad used to call a lie. No doubt most iPod users dutifully followed the instructions and let Apple have its way with their iPods.

The factory reset deleted everything, rebooted the iPod and then put fresh operating software on it. If your iPod was full of MP3s like mine, you ended up with an empty iPod. If you had Apple's own AAC music, you'd get them back. But your MP3s were gone forever.

I learned right away that this would happen any time I let Apple do a remote factory reset, so I made sure I had separate backup copies of my MP3s. But I never thought Apple was intentionally turning my music collection into dead meat. I always figured there was a glitch somewhere.

But now I know. No glitch. A grinch. Apple was deleting files it didn't like.

In the trial, Apple testified that it was merely trying to block piracy. As for why iPod users weren't told their MP3s would be wiped out by a reset, Apple's lawyers said the company didn't want to "give users too much information." That would have confused users, one of Apple's lawyers told the judge.

(After reading the testimony, I had no idea what Apple's legal team was talking about in regard to piracy. If Apple's AAC music files were being pirated, why would the company delete MP3s?)

There are other questions. Why did Apple design the iPod to play MP3s -- it did a great job of MP3 playback, by the way -- if MP3s were so dangerous they had to be swiftly and secretly deleted? Why, indeed, hasn't Apple apologized for deleting users' files, now that the truth is out?

Don't count on getting answers soon, however. The case was tossed out as I was writing this column. There was no anticompetitive behavior, the court ruled.

It's not clear whether the issue of deleted MP3s will ever face legal scrutiny again.

Write to Al Fasoldt at afasoldt@gmail.com. You can read any of Al's thousands of past columns at www.technofileonline.com.