Smartphone recalls signal need for tighter safety laws

The mobile phone in your pocket could be a ticking time bomb. So could be the laptop, tablet and portable power bank in your bag.

Blame it on the ubiquitous lithium-based rechargeable battery that powers these devices.

Such batteries are notorious for overheating and posing a fire or burn hazard. An average consumer carries several of these mobile devices, posing significant safety risks to himself and those around.

Even though experts say the chances of mobile devices exploding are five in a million, there has been an increase in the number of product recalls in recent times, including a high profile one last month.

It involved Singapore's first major mobile phone recall with tens of thousands of consumers having to exchange their Samsung Galaxy Note7 phones for new models.

Worldwide, the South Korean handset maker recalled a total of 2.5 million of its latest flagship Note7 device, sparked by incidents in which they caught fire due to battery overheating.

The incident led to many questions on what protection consumers in Singapore have for defective infocomm products.

Specifically, can consumers count on Singapore's safety authority, Spring Singapore, to act on their behalf when the need arises?

Limited Regulatory Powers

These questions spring from Spring's seeming reluctance to intervene in Samsung's recall.

Some aggrieved customers had asked for a refund. The world's largest phone maker would not offer a refund here although the option was given to consumers in Australia and the United States.

Note7 user Sadiq R., 26, said he had contacted Spring for help to get a refund. But the graphic designer said his request was deflected to the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case).

Another Note7 user Ngo Yit Sung, 35, tried the Case route. But the consumer watchdog, citing the Lemon Law, told him that manufacturers are allowed to offer a one-for-one exchange before proposing a refund.

The burden of proving that the exchanged product is defective is also on him.

"Should I have to wait for the replaced device to blow up in my face before I can get a refund?" asked the investor relations consultant.

The Straits Times reported late last month that a small number of replacement Note7 phones had to be exchanged twice as they too were found to overheat and rapidly drain power while being charged.

When contacted, Spring and the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) - which regulates mobile phone signals - said tersely:

"There is no need for the government to intervene at this stage, given that Samsung has already initiated a voluntary recall of the Note7."

They added: "The IMDA and Spring will continue to work closely to ensure that mobile phones meet international safety standards, and take the necessary actions to ensure that consumers are adequately protected."

Judging from the recall alerts Spring puts on its website, one would imagine that it also has the necessary regulatory oversight for safety-related defects.

In the first nine months of this year alone, Spring issued six "alerts" for faulty battery or power cords in infocomm technology products such as laptops, portable speakers and tablets. This is an increase from the four safety alerts issued for mobile devices on its website in 2015. In the year before, there were six such alerts.

In most cases, the manufacturer or distributor in question voluntarily issued a recall. For instance, consumer electronics retailer Challenger voluntarily recalled 12,000 units of portable power banks in 2014 as they were found to overheat and posed a fire risk.

Major manufacturers and retailers have reputations to protect, and would make such voluntary recalls under most circumstances.

But can consumers count on manufacturers and retailers to put their safety first at all times? What happens when there is a conflict of interest?

A nation's safety authority plays a key role under such circumstances. But existing laws do not appear to be broad enough to empower Spring to order an official recall and ban the sale of a defective product - unlike in the US.

Spring's oversight does not specifically cover defects. Under the Consumer Protection (Consumer Goods Safety Requirements) Regulations 2011, Spring's recall power applies narrowly to situations when a consumer product does not meet the necessary safety standards.

An example of a safety standard is the European EN 60950-1 that governs electrical safety for information technology equipment.

"If a product meets all the safety standards but is nevertheless defective, this statute might not be helpful," said lawyer Gilbert Leong, senior partner at Dentons Rodyk & Davidson.

It is worth noting that the mobile devices that were voluntarily recalled had met all relevant safety standards.

Another piece of legislation, the Consumer Protection (Safety Requirements) Regulations, also does not deal with recalling defective goods.

Under this, Spring can order a recall on 47 controlled goods - including the refrigerator and gas cooker - only if they are not registered with Spring or do not bear the required safety mark.

More teeth

Battery overheating leading to fire risk is a big problem that will only become bigger as device makers push boundaries to make batteries charge faster and last longer.

"Intense rivalry among companies may have encouraged engineers to push materials to their limits, therefore increasing risks," said Professor Rachid Yazami at Nanyang Technological University's Energy Research Institute.

Prof Yazami said the chances of mobile devices exploding or catching fire are five in a million based on about 20 billion lithium-based batteries in use today.

Although there have been no reported cases of the Note7 catching fire or exploding here, there was a report earlier this year of a deadly fire caused by drone batteries left to charge overnight.

The fire on June 9 last year engulfed a home in Parry Avenue and claimed two lives.

Consumers here deserve better protection against defective products, which their counterparts in the US already enjoy.

Last month, US safety regulator, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, banned the sale of the phone which had caught fire, as well as issued an official recall.

Violating a ban or product recall constitutes an offence under its Consumer Product Safety Act, which subjects offenders to a maximum fine of US$100,000 (S$137,000) for each violation up to a total of US$15 million, or not more than five years imprisonment, or both.

Lawyer Kala Anandarajah, who heads the Competition & Antitrust and Trade team at Rajah & Tann, said Singapore laws are stricter on defective cars than on defective phones.

"Defective cars that are not safe must be fixed under the law, and this requirement applies to both authorised dealers and dealers of parallel import cars," she said.

Errant dealers that do not recall unsafe cars or fix them run foul of the Road Traffic Act and could be fined up to $50,000.

A faulty car is arguably more dangerous than a faulty phone battery; road accidents can be fatal.

However, it can also be argued that a faulty phone exploding in mid-flight is just as bad. That is why many carriers including Singapore Airlines still do not allow the use or charging of the Note7 while flying.

This is despite the US Federal Aviation Administration giving the green light late last month for Note7 phones with a green battery charge indicator to be turned on and charged on flights and stored in checked baggage.

As the saying goes, it is better to be safe than sorry. Given the real risk of lithium batteries overheating, and their wide use in smartphones and a range of portable devices essential to modern living, it is prudent and timely for the authorities to strengthen the laws here to signal that there is no room for compromise when it comes to consumer safety.

Read more:

US flight evacuated after another Samsung phone fire

Samsung says in talks with US watchdog on washing machine safety issues

Battery problems persist in exchanged Samsung Galaxy Note 7

This article was first published on October 6, 2016.
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