The Right to Repair Revolution of 2021
If you follow tech news, you’ve seen the headlines: ‘Right to Repair laws being enshrined in the E.U., U.K. to follow their lead. ‘U.S. Medical Right to Repair bill dies in Judiciary Committee’. And of course most recently, ‘25 U.S. states drafting Right to Repair laws this year’.
So what’s behind the right to repair craze? Who’s for it, who’s against it, and why?
Recent Cases That Motivated the Right to Repair Movement
It all started with a tractor.
In 2017, a farmer in Nebraska got together with his fellow tractor owners and said they ought to do something about John Deere’s stranglehold on tractor repair, which was both expensive and a complete monopoly because of the software they were using. Their unlikely allies: Cell phone repair shops who were being kicked around by Apple for trying to repair iPhones without permission to use reconditioned parts. They all banded together and got the state legislature to draft LB67, the Nebraska ‘Fair Repair Act’.
This wasn’t the first right to repair case in recent times, but this one had teeth and it made international news. Of course the best way to stop such a movement is with silence, because then there’s nothing to report on. LB67 was put on indefinite hold in 2018 and died in committee.
Deere’s repair monopoly in Nebraska continued until early 2021, when bill LB543, entitled the Agricultural Equipment Right-To-Repair Act, was introduced to the legislature. This time, with a poison pill: The mechanic needs to buy the required tools or software from the local franchisee. The last time someone tried, they were quoted $8,000, mostly for ‘software and training’. Nebraska probably has a long fight ahead of them if no national law is passed on the subject.
And now, we move to Norway.
In the summer of 2020, Apple defended their anti Right to Repair stance by claiming that third party refurbishers of replacement screens were “counterfeiting” iPhone screens. Even though the small repair shop being sued never advertised that repairs were being made with brand new Apple parts, he had to take the case to the Norwegian Supreme Court. Where he lost.
Apple was able to use old phrasing and statutes in the law that were never intended to apply to modern electronics. This allowed them to continue to charge between 2.5 and 3 times the amount that the average repair shop using refurbished parts charges; or would use, if those refurbished parts weren’t considered counterfeit.
Stories like this are what has brought the right to repair fight out of the shadows. But the thing that drove lawmakers to actually start taking action was quite unexpected… Covid-19.
When hospital technicians around the world weren’t allowed to repair vital lifesaving equipment because there were no right to repair laws in place and the technology was considered proprietary, there was a massive wave of public anger and resentment. A big, bright spotlight was suddenly shining right on the industries trying to defend their exclusive repair and spare parts access policies. And the whole world was watching.
Seeing which way the wind was about to blow, several politicians jumped on board the right to repair train. By late 2020, the U.S. state laws started to be introduced to their individual legislatures. Several national laws all around the world began their debate cycle. And the E.U. and U.K. made pledges to enact new right to repair omnibus laws by the summer of 2021.
Great. Now Can I Do Laptop Repairs or Fix Phones For Others?
It depends on the companies involved. Some are more than happy to let you do repairs. As a matter of fact, the newly proposed E.U. system will have a ‘repairability score’ that rates and rewards companies that have open repair policies. In the near future, this might be a source of healthy competition between rivals.
In this case, it’s the French leading the way, with their own ‘repairability index’. Companies have one year to undergo assessment based on parts availability, documentation, ease of disassembling, and other criteria. Cash fines start going out in 2022 for those who don’t comply. Likely, the broader E.U. rating system will be fairly similar to what we see in France.
So yes, some products are quite helpful with schematics and wouldn’t dream of restricting repairs. With other products, it’s actually the parts suppliers themselves that won’t supply to the ‘public’, restricting the use of their parts to new builds only. It’s an unfortunate attitude, but not uncommon.
But what about the likes of Apple or John Deere? Can you use what you have on hand to repair their products without the threat of a lawsuit? Even if you don’t comply with their specific parts purchase policy, which can restrict you to insanely expensive ‘official’ parts or specific OEM vendors?
Of course not, don’t be silly.
Apple, John Deere, and other highly proprietary companies know that they can’t chase down every repair shop that is using repaired and repurposed parts. But they are more than happy to publicly ‘make examples’ out of a few of them so that the rest fall into line. Then again, this kind of secrecy and backwards thinking can backfire. Apple just had their new MacBook schematics stolen right from the factory who makes them. Given their reputation for stopping early leaks and keeping their schematics out of the hands of the public, they may end up paying the $50 million.
Even if new right to repair laws seem ‘imminent’ in your country or state, don’t bet the farm on them solving the problems that they were intended to solve. In fact, don’t count on them passing at all until the final ‘aye’ vote is counted.
First of all, although the E.U. and U.K. say that new laws are imminent, we’ve heard all of that before. Talk is cheap, political talk doubly so. This is a move that will cost monopolistic repair companies billions a year. There’s still a lot of money to be thrown around to test the political will of every European politician involved in the process. Nobody should be counting their chickens.
And the situation in the U.S. is no less sure or stable. As mentioned above, bills die in committee all the time. Or they actually get voted on, get passed, and they go to the Governer or President for signature… then they get put in a desk drawer. This move is called the ‘pocket veto’. It causes a massive delay, and then the bill goes back to congress and needs to pass by an even greater majority to ever see implementation. All the while, the media has moved on to something else. This is how bills die with a whisper.
The situation will remain the same until these bills are passed, and even then they need to stand up in court. If for some reason they’re seen as unconstitutional, unenforceable, or riddled with loopholes and poison pills, they might simply be dead on arrival.
Some of the companies fighting against right to repair aren’t exactly the most restrictive or secretive companies in the world. But they’re worried about other clauses in the upcoming right to repair bills… namely those aimed at planned obsolescence.
You see, they don’t really care if you’re doing laptop repairs or upgrading the firmware on your phones. They care that if you’re given access to full schematics and a parts catalog, you’ll figure out why your printer stopped working after about 5 years. Or why your point of sale terminal seemed to slow down by 30% for no particular reason.
Planned obsolescence is when manufacturers knowingly build a weakness into their product that happens after a fairly predictable amount of time, on average. Usually after the warranty expires. This forces you to buy the newest version when the old one fails or slows down. Which of course generates a bunch of e-waste, as mentioned above.
Some of these intentional weaknesses may have cheap and easy workarounds and repairs, which they don’t want you to know of course. Others are so obviously built into the system, that one glance at the schematics might trigger a class action lawsuit.
Speaking of which: Apple just paid $3.4 million to Chileans for one planned obsolescence lawsuit, and are litigating a second in Portugal. And an E.U. wide lawsuit was filed in January 2021 for $72 million over the iPhone 6’s planned obsolescence.
As you can see, intentional product weakness and failure over time is big business. With all of these anti-planned obsolescence statutes packed in with the right to repair laws that are being proposed, tens of billions of dollars hang in the balance.
If these practices are exposed, the flow of money will shift from purchasing new products to local repair shops and parts dealers. With the intentional weaknesses exposed and fixed, these products could drastically extend their useful lifespan, and millions of tons of e-waste could be kept out of landfills and recycling centers.
Why is This Important?
It’s not just about putting money in the pockets of small repair shops, though that would be a nice change. The right to repair movement has roots in the economy, the environment, and the right to perform one’s trade without impediment.
According to U.S. PIRG, one of the biggest right to repair organizations in the world, the savings that can be seen from doing these kinds of repairs is around $40 billion in the U.S. alone. Not every household is going to do their own repairs or go to a local repair shop, of course. But the ones that do would save, on average, $330 a year. And the money that is spent on repairs would stay more regional, often going to either small businesses or local retailers who employ people in the neighborhood.
Then there are the environmental aspects. The Global e-Waste Monitor, published by the ITU, reports that in 2019 over 53 million metric tons of e-waste was generated. Only 17% was properly recycled. In this context, right to repair is an environmentally responsible policy. The more electronics that can be repurposed, repaired, and refurbished, the less end up in landfills. If just 15% of this kind of unrecycled e-waste was instead repaired or salvaged, we would stop over 6.5 million metric tons of electronics from leaching toxins into the ground and air every year.
And of course, there are aspects of freedom involved. Freedom to perform one’s trade without undue burdens. Freedom to operate without a monopoly setting the price of parts. Freedom to repair one’s own possessions without fear of reprisal from the manufacturer, as is the case of John Deere who has gone so far as to say the owners of their tractors technically don’t ‘own’ their tractors, they just have the right to use them forever. This kind of manipulation needs to be outlawed.
Finally, it might be the start of general intellectual property, patent, and copyright reform that is sorely needed in many countries. This kind of stranglehold on the inner workings of a product that a consumer has fully bought and paid for needs to be examined closely. Several of the laws that are currently being applied to modern devices were written before the Internet. Before hotfixes, BIOS flashing, and software patches. Before electronics almost entirely took over the automotive and tractor industries. Right to repair is just the first step in bringing sanity to the dated legal system surrounding electronics and computing.
Right to repair is a hot topic right now, but that doesn’t mean that anything should be considered a ‘done deal’. A lot of political distractions, expensive corporate lobbying, and last minute proposals are likely on the horizon. Big companies will try to make big political donations to make these bills quietly disappear. We’ve seen it happen before.
If the public eye wavers, if interest in the topic disappears before the bills are voted on, who knows when the next opportunity might be? The misfortune of Covid-19 brought right to repair into the spotlight as a measure for saving lives. And even more will be saved if these bills are passed, from the environmental impact alone. In a world where clean drinking water is disappearing in many countries, the last thing we need is another 5 million metric tons of perfectly repairable devices tossed into landfills every year. The right time for reform is right now.