How Tech Firms are Resisting the ‘Right to Repair’

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Few of us are old enough to remember the days when you could easily swap out a dead battery in your flip phone. Nowadays, repairing virtually any electronic device – from smartphones to gaming consoles, microwave ovens or fans – can cost more than buying new. Companies make it difficult for technicians to update their products, source parts, or software. So the devices are just thrown away, generating potentially hazardous waste and forcing consumers to buy new items whose production further taxes the environment. After long resistance calls from campaign groups for the “right to repair” of gadgets, some big manufacturers are starting to change their tune.

1. What is behind the right to repair movement?

Since the first electronic consumer goods appeared in the 1950s, consumers have tried to keep them going by repairing or replacing broken parts. Today, it is clear that many products are designed to be unfixable. Manufacturers use non-standard screws, glue or solder parts together to seal devices unnecessarily, making it almost impossible to replace components. The increasing complexity of gadgets means technicians need detailed manuals and tools that can be difficult or impossible to source. Some manufacturers also tweak the software so that their devices don’t work properly when parts are replaced. They have also been accused of updating the software to deliberately degrade the performance of the product as it ages. Apple, which says it engineers “each software release to ensure it runs well on all supported devices,” has been a particular focus of complaints.

2. What are the complaints about Apple?

Apple, like other tech firms, usually doesn’t share spare parts with repair shops that it doesn’t approve. Critics say this makes independent repair pointless because it can cost more than buying a new device. When other workshops switch out batteries or screens, users may suffer from glitches and error messages. Apple says uncertified parts can cause poor performance and serious security issues. The tech giant has made some concessions in recent years. In 2019, it launched a program allowing third parties to fix devices that are now under warranty, and began training more than 265,000 repair technicians. Then in 2021, it announced plans to supply parts so iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 owners can fix their displays, batteries and cameras. Right-to-repair campaigners say parts, and the equipment Apple leases to customers, can be so expensive that it’s still cheaper to replace the phone entirely.

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3. What about other industries?

While the main focus of the campaign is electronic devices like phones and laptops, it covers a range of goods from toasters to refrigerators, cars, motorcycles and tractors. Independent motor repair shops in the US state of Maine are lobbying for access to diagnostic data needed to repair many cars and trucks. Deere & Co. has traditionally not allowed anyone but its own technicians to touch the electronics on its famous green and yellow tractors. Some farmers resort to buying older models with simpler components that they can still fix. In January, the company agreed to give them access to diagnostic and repair codes, manuals and product guides. However, it was unclear whether Deere would share all the information farmers needed to repair machinery without involving an approved repair shop.

Discarded electronics generated an estimated 53.6 million tons of waste in 2019, and only 17% of that was properly recycled. Trash contains heavy metals and compounds including arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium that, if not disposed of properly, can put communities at risk of cancer and birth defects. Manufacturing and shipping new devices to replace consumables, not to mention mining the necessary raw materials, burns energy, often resulting in the emission of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. Researchers have estimated that producing a smartphone, for example, emits the equivalent of 40 to 80 kilograms of carbon dioxide, roughly the same as driving a typical passenger car for 200 miles (320 kilometers). As more people buy cellphones and other gadgets, the emissions from their production increase. The authors of the study noted that over the past 50 years, the consumption of electronic devices has increased sixfold but the world’s population has only doubled.

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5. How are big tech firms opposing the right to repair?

Companies including Apple, Google, Microsoft and Tesla Inc. have spent heavily on lobbyists to make the case that the right-to-repair law would expose industry secrets, give third parties access to sensitive information and jeopardize the safety and security of consumers. . When Apple representatives fought a right-to-repair bill in Nebraska in 2017, they told lawmakers it would turn the state into a “mecca” for hackers. Critics say the industry opposes a free market in repairs because it lowers the price for the job and encourages more people to fix their gadgets, hammering sales of new ones.

6. What are governments doing?

Laws enacted in the European Union and the UK are forcing consumers to ensure that parts of washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators and TVs are interchangeable with common appliances that consumers can easily use. The EU is looking to regulate mobile phones, tablets and computers. In France, manufacturers must provide a “repairability score” for certain electronic devices. For example, Apple gave its iPhone 12 Pro Max, released in late 2020, on a scale of zero to 10. US President Joe Biden has asked federal officials in 2021 to introduce measures to prevent manufacturers from doing self- or third-party repairs. their products. Several U.S. states have since considered right-to-repair bills, but many have been shot down or repealed, according to consumer groups that track the proposals. New York became the first US state to pass a bill in December. Campaigners said it was destroyed by the amendments which meant it would still be impossible to carry out cost-effective independent repairs.

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7. Will any new measures make a difference?

It’s too early to tell as many manufacturers were delayed to give them time to adapt. Consumer rights advocates are already expressing frustration that some of the new rules only benefit professional repairers because they do not guarantee the right to repair for consumers and nonprofits. Also, legislation often focuses on physical components, not software. If your device needs a software update then replacing the faulty part may not be of any use. Many right-to-repair bills fail to address the common practice among manufacturers of selling entire modules of parts instead of single components that need replacing, which can make repairs uneconomical. For example, a consumer trying to replace the drum bearings on a washing machine may have to replace the entire drum, making the repair as expensive as a new machine.

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