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How Tech Firms are Resisting the ‘Right to Repair’

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

1. What’s behind the right to repair movement?

Since the first electronic consumer goods emerged in the 1950s, buyers have tried to keep them going by repairing or replacing broken parts. Today, it’s clear that many products are designed to be unfixable. Manufacturers use non-standard screws, seal devices with glue or solder parts together unnecessarily, making it virtually impossible to replace components. The growing complexity of gadgets means technicians need detailed manuals and tools that can be hard or impossible to source. Some manufacturers even tweak the software so their equipment doesn’t work properly when parts are replaced. They’re even accused of updating software to deliberately impair product performance with age. Apple, which says it engineers “each software release to make sure it runs beautifully on all supported devices,” has been a particular focus of grievance. 

2. What are the complaints about Apple?

Apple, like other tech firms, doesn’t usually share spares with repair shops it hasn’t approved. Critics say this makes independent repairs pointless as it can cost more than buying a new device. When other workshops do switch out batteries or screens, users can be plagued by glitches and error messages. Apple says unverified parts can lead to poor performance and serious safety issues. The tech giant has made some concessions in recent years. In 2019, it launched a program allowing third parties to fix devices no longer under warranty, and began training more than 265,000 repair technicians. Then in 2021, it announced plans to supply parts so that iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 owners can fix their display, battery and camera. Right-to-repair campaigners say the parts, and the tools Apple rents to customers, can be so expensive that it’s still cheaper to replace the phone altogether. 

3. What about other industries?

While the campaign’s main focus is electronic devices like phones and laptops, it encompasses a range of goods from toasters to refrigerators, cars, motorbikes and tractors. Independent motor repair shops in the US state of Maine are lobbying for access to the diagnostic data they need to repair many cars and trucks. Deere & Co. traditionally allowed no one but its own technicians to touch the electronics in its famous green and yellow tractors. Some farmers resorted to buying older models with simpler components that they could still fix. In January, the company agreed to grant them access to diagnostic and repair codes, manuals and product guides. However, it wasn’t clear if Deere would share all the information farmers need to mend the machinery without involving an approved repair shop. 

4. What’s at stake?

Discarded electronics generated an estimated 53.6 million tons of waste in 2019, and only 17% of that was properly recycled. The trash contains heavy metals and compounds including arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium which, if not disposed of appropriately, can expose communities to the risk of cancer and birth defects. The production and shipment of new devices to replace unfixable ones, not to mention the mining of the necessary raw materials, burns energy, often resulting in the emission of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. Researchers have estimated that the production of a smartphone, for example, emits from 40 to 80 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent, about the same as driving a typical passenger car as many as 200 miles (320 kilometers). As more people purchase cellphones and other gadgets, emissions from their production multiply. The study’s authors noted that in the previous 50 years, consumption of electronic devices grew sixfold though the world’s population only doubled. 

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

Companies including Apple, Google, Microsoft and Tesla Inc. have spent heavily on lobbyists to make a case that right-to-repair laws would expose industry secrets, give third parties access to sensitive information, and put the safety and security of consumers at risk. 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 would lower prices for this work and encourage more people to get their gadgets fixed, hammering sales of new ones. 

6. What are governments doing? 

Laws enacted in the European Union and the UK are forcing makers of washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators and TVs to ensure parts are replaceable with common tools that consumers can use easily. The EU is looking into regulating mobile phones, tablets and computers. In France, manufacturers must provide a “repairability score” for some electronic devices. Apple, for instance, gave its iPhone 12 Pro Max, released in late 2020, a six on a scale of zero to 10. US President Joe Biden asked federal officials in 2021 to introduce measures limiting manufacturers from barring self- or third-party repairs of their products. Several US states considered right-to-repair bills since then, but many were voted down or dismissed, according to consumer groups tracking the proposals. New York became the first US state to pass a bill in December. Campaigners said it was gutted by amendments that meant it would still be impossible to carry out cost-effective independent repairs. 

7. Are any of the new measures making a difference? 

It’s too early to say as many were delayed to allow manufacturers time to adapt. Consumer rights advocates are already voicing frustration that some of the new rules only benefit professional repairers as they don’t guarantee the right to repair for consumers and nonprofits. Also, the legislation often focuses on physical components, not software. Replacing a faulty part may be of no use if your device also needs a software update. Many right-to-repair bills fail to address the practice, common among manufacturers, of selling entire modules of parts instead of the single component that needs replacing, which can make repairs uneconomical. For example, a consumer looking to replace drum bearings in a washing machine may have to replace the whole drum, making the repair almost as expensive as a new machine. 

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