Updated: July 14, 2021 12:26:46 pm
The average consumer purchases an electronic gadget, knowing that it will very quickly become obsolete as its manufacturer releases newer, shinier, and more amped up versions of the same device. As your device grows older, issues start to crop up — your smartphone may slow down to a point where it is almost unusable, or your gaming console may require one too many hard resets. When this happens, more often than not, you are left at the mercy of manufacturers who make repairs inaccessible for most, by dictating who can fix your device and making it an inordinately expensive affair.
So, why aren’t consumers permitted to fix their gadgets themselves? This is a question advocates of the worldwide ‘right to repair’ movement have been addressing for decades now. In recent years, countries around the world have been attempting to pass effective ‘right to repair’ laws. But it is no surprise that the movement has faced tremendous resistance from tech giants such as Apple and Microsoft over the years.
On Friday, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order calling on the Federal Trade Commission to curb restrictions imposed by manufacturers that limit consumers’ ability to repair their gadgets on their own terms. The UK, too, introduced right-to-repair rules that should make it much easier to buy and repair daily-use gadgets such as TVs and washing machines.
So, what is the right to repair movement?
Activists and organisations around the world have been advocating for the right of consumers to be able to repair their own electronics and other products as part of the ‘right to repair’ movement. The movement traces its roots back to the very dawn of the computer era in the 1950s.
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The goal of the movement is to get companies to make spare parts, tools and information on how to repair devices available to customers and repair shops to increase the lifespan of products and to keep them from ending up in landfills.
They argue that these electronic manufacturers are encouraging a culture of ‘planned obsolescence’ — which means that devices are designed specifically to last a limited amount of time and to be replaced. This, they claim, leads to immense pressure on the environment and wasted natural resources.
Manufacturing an electronic device is a highly polluting process. It makes use of polluting sources of energy, such as fossil fuel, which has an adverse impact on the environment. For instance, a New York Times report states that the mining and manufacturing materials used to make an iPhone “represent roughly 83 per cent of its contribution to the heat-trapping emissions in the atmosphere throughout its life cycle”, according to manufacturing data released by Apple. It’s about 57 per cent for the average washing machine.
Right to repair advocates also argue that this will help boost business for small repair shops, which are an important part of local economies. If a manufacturer has monopoly on repairs, then prices rise exponentially and quality tends to drop, they say. Price is a major factor propounded by these activists. As there is a lack of competition in the repair market in the west, consumers are not able to hunt for the best deal.
But why do electronic manufacturers oppose this movement?
Large tech companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Tesla, have been lobbying against the right to repair. Their argument is that opening up their intellectual property to third party repair services or amateur repairers could lead to exploitation and impact the safety and security of their devices.
Tesla, for instance, has fought against right to repair advocacy, stating that such initiatives threaten data security and cyber security.
Interestingly, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak recently voiced his support for the movement. “We wouldn’t have had an Apple had I not grown up in a very open technology world,” he said. The tech giant has long been criticised for allowing repairs of its devices only by authorised technicians and not providing spare parts or manuals on how to fix its products.
These companies are constantly claiming that they are working towards greater durability themselves. This year, Apple took more steps towards reducing its contribution to e-waste. It has expanded its free, independent repair provider programme in 200 countries and extended access to genuine spare parts, information on repairs and tools for out of warranty repairs.
Microsoft has pointed out how it improved the battery and hard drive of its third-generation Surface Laptop after it was criticised for making it next to impossible to replace the battery in older models.
The right to repair in the United States
In his executive order to promote economic competition, President Biden called on the Federal Trade Commission to force tech companies to allow consumers to fix their own electronic devices — either themselves or using a technician of their choice. He specifically called out cell phone and tractor manufacturers in the White House’s fact sheet. With this, some believe manufacturers of electronic devices may even start making their products more durable and long lasting.
As of 2021, almost all of the 50 US states have proposed a right to repair bill, however, only one, Massachusetts, has made it a law. The state’s legislation makes it compulsory for vehicle manufacturers to make information about repairs to owners and independent repair facilities for any car made in 2015 or later. Since then, most car manufacturers have applied this rule across the US, even though the law is limited to Massachusetts alone.
The law and future amendments to it, which could expand access to mechanical and electronic repair data, have been challenged by the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and other car makers. They argue that opening up data could lead to serious cyber security risks.
The focus of the proposed right to repair bills in other US states vary greatly. For instance in Florida and South Carolina, the proposed bill concentrates on agriculture-related equipment, while in California the focus is on medical equipment.
Since the 2021 legislative session has been completed in nearly all the states, the proposed bills will not become law this year. In New York, a proposed Fair Repair Act made it as far as the state’s senate. However as it arrived in the state’s assembly on the last day of the session, it will only be voted on when it reconvenes in January, next year.
Right to repair in Europe
Earlier this month, the UK government introduced right-to-repair rules with the aim of extending the lifespan of products by up to 10 years. Manufacturers of products like washing machines, TVs and refrigerators are required to make spare parts available to people purchasing electrical appliances. The new legislation gives manufacturers a two-year window to make the necessary changes to abide by the new legislation.
However, it does not cover all electrical appliances. It includes dishwashers, washing machines, refrigeration appliances and televisions. Smartphones and laptops, however, have been excluded.
Meanwhile, the European Union’s right to repair laws require manufacturers to ensure that electronic goods can be repaired for up to a decade. This comes as the result of legislation passed by the European Parliament, which voted in favour of establishing more far-reaching and effective ‘right to repair’ rules. The aim is to reduce electrical waste, which has been on the rise in the continent due to a spike in manufacturing.
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