Toppling the Repair Monopoly

Manufacturers have been making it harder for us to fix our gadgets independently, but a movement is afoot to change that.

In late August, tech giant Apple announced it was going to allow more independent repair of iPhones, or, as the company put it in their press release, “offer customers even more options for safe, reliable repairs.” That’s a big deal these days, because Apple and companies like it keep a tight grip on the information and parts needed to repair, modify, or even recycle their products.

photo of computer repair
Independent repair of electronics used to be pretty common. These days, consumers still have the legal right to repair gadgets themselves, but it’s become much harder than it needs to be. Photo by Jarmolek / Pixabay.

But not that long ago, independent repair was pretty common, and advocates from the Right to Repair movement argue that the choice to fix our gadgets ourselves is a right we’ve lost without even noticing, a shift with far-reaching legal and environmental consequences.

Historically, consumers and small repair businesses had legal standing to fix the products they owned. That’s important because it meant longer lasting technology, fewer new purchases, and less e-waste. Over the past two decades, however, large corporations have developed legal precedents that allow them to monopolize repair of the products they produce: everything from computers to tractors to home appliances. The result, advocates for the repair movement argue, is a slippery slope towards an even more disposable culture.

For Aaron Perzanowski, law professor and coauthor of The End of Ownership, the story of repair monopolization begins with the terms and conditions most of us click “agree” to so we can make the pop-up go away. These licensing agreements often forbid seeking repair, resale, or anything done outside of the “permitted use” of the product, which Perzanowski describes as “a huge source of power for these sorts of companies.” He argues that the courts’ willingness to enforce them anyways enables corporations to monopolize repair and infringe on consumers’ personal property rights.

Similarly, the anti-circumvention clause in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, is notorious in the right to repair movement for how broadly it’s been applied. Originally intended to protect software and similar products from piracy, it’s now widely used as a legal justification to go after the independent repair industry.

Under the DMCA, “you’re not allowed to tamper with, or bypass, or remove DRM [Digital Rights Management] systems that control access to copyrighted works,” says Perzanowski. “Those tools became really powerful, and device makers started to realize, Hey, we can use these tools too. They were meant for software and movies and games, but now we’re going to use those tools on garage door openers, and printers, and vehicles… Companies have taken advantage of a legal environment that wasn’t meant to do the work that it’s doing now.”

Now that they’ve got them, companies like Apple are clinging to their repair monopolies, actively lobbying against more targeted right-to-repair legislation. That’s because, while the right to repair may be legislated as a consumer protection issue, monopolization can have much broader consequences for product design and pricing. Less independent repair means less repair overall, and fewer corporate incentives to design easily repairable or durable products. The result is a vicious cycle in which consumers view electronics as disposable, and companies in turn design disposable electronics. All the while, repair becomes less available — and consumers stop caring.

Gay Gordon-Byrne, Executive Director of the Repair Association, a group that brings together the independent repair industry, sees this dynamic as incentivizing companies to cut corners in design. “It may not be planned [obsolescence],” she says, “but it certainly doesn’t hurt them. Because they weren’t intending to allow you to fix it anyway.”

Within the movement, Kyle Wiens is perhaps the most fervent advocate for self-repair, his term for repair performed by users themselves, and he started the website iFixit to facilitate that. Wiens agrees with Gordon-Byrne, pointing to the popularity of glue-in batteries in electronics as an example of this process’ logical progression. “It’s the equivalent of welding tires onto a car,” Wiens says. “And when the tires wear out, you just throw away the car and buy a new car. That would be preposterous with a car, and yet we’ve just come to accept it with [electronics].”

The result is more and more e-waste entering our waste streams, according to Nathan Proctor, who heads up US PIRG’s right-to-repair division. “There’s a lot of stuff that we could be fixing, keeping off the scrap heap, if the companies that made our stuff would just let us fix it,” he says.

Repair monopolization has also undermined smaller, local businesses; Gordon-Byrne describes the impact of the current legal environment as “devastating” to the local repair industry, and says it’s forced many companies to shut down, while the rest consolidated.

Despite appearances, however, consumers still have the legal right to repair; it’s just much harder to fix things than it has to be. Regulation like the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act and established antitrust law in theory forbid the kind of repair monopolization that characterizes today’s economy, but they are unevenly enforced.

Proctor says that uncertainty over their rights keeps consumers from seeking repair. “We’ve been conditioned to think that if we open something, if we take control of it in any way, we’ve violated our relationship with the manufacturer and we’ll be kicked to the curb at the first opportunity,” he says, pointing to “void warranty if removed” stickers, which have been found by the FTC to violate Magnuson-Moss, as an example.

For Weins, this means that the right-to-repair is a great opportunity for self-empowerment, an angle iFixit tries to focus on. He says while there are significant structural barriers, the biggest factor preventing repair might be consumers’ own hesitation, and he sees this issue as one of self-empowerment as much as technology. “Overwhelmingly, most things out there are fixable” he says, noting with ire that Apple’s airpods are the exception. “People are just terrified of taking something apart. And so if we can just get them to pick up a screwdriver and remove the first screw, they are 90 percent of the way there. They will succeed with the repair. They are far more capable than they think they are. For us, it’s really about this empowerment message. Believe in yourself. You can fix it…It’s already broken—how bad can it get.”

To make matters worse, consumers are often too confused or unwilling to dispose of e-waste properly. In 2016, 44.7 megatons of e-waste were produced worldwide, only 20 percent of which were correctly recycled, according to a UN-sponsored 2017 report. A lot of that waste is valuable and could be repurposed, but when corporations try to inhibit independent repair, they also make recycling harder, because they’re less willing to share the kind of product information necessary for efficient disposal and reuse.

“The same information that we need to be able to repair something is also essential for the recycling market to function,” says Byrne. “....We’ve completely failed to deal with the gorilla in the room…disassembly for electronics. You can’t process these things down into their raw materials and extract any value out of them without an incredible amount of work. And yet the manufacturers are not even being told they have to provide a diagram of where these parts are.”

“There’s so much computing power that we use in America that we’ve artificially made single-use,” Proctor says. “Then we have to remanufacture more computing power, when you could easily cross-purpose the processors and the other components in so many of the products that we make to serve other purposes.”

In the US, it can be hard to see the full extent of our e-waste, but in places like Agbogbloshie, Ghana, where mountains of electronics rise from the ground and there are so many black, toxic fires that the area’s nicknamed “Sodom,” the full load of our disposable culture becomes more obvious.

Wiens believes that what he terms “self-repair” ——and repair in general — is crucial to addressing this issue. “Repair saves the planet,” he says. “Every time you fix something, you’re preventing another new thing from being made.”

That kind of reduction in consumption may be good for the planet, but you’re not likely to find it in most corporations’ business plan. Within the movement, there’s a consensus that the protections we have simply aren’t enough to overcome current trends. They’re pushing to pass state-based right-to-repair laws, modeled after automobile repair legislation that’s been successful in the past. Without that, Wiens says, monopolization will only get worse. “We’re looking 10, 20 years down the road to where does this lead, and the answer is, all of the strategies that we’re seeing to lock people out of their devices are going to continue unless we get a legislative framework in place to stop it,” he says.

Although bills have been introduced to an increasing number of legislatures, they have yet to pass. Proctor attributes this in part to the enormous lobbying power opposing them. “I counted up all the companies that registered to lobby last year on the right to repair bill in New York state,” he says. “And we walk into those offices up against 2.5 trillion dollars worth of market cap of opponents.” Among those opponents? Giants like Apple, Toyota, Verizon, AT&T, and Johnson and Johnson, according to US PIRG.

However, those in the movement are optimistic that momentum is building. Right-to-repair isn’t a partisan issue, which can be a double-edged sword, according to Byrne, because it means that while that it can get support from a wide array of groups, it often “gets buried by other priorities.” A recent FTC meeting was promising, several advocates say, and Motorola has begun partnering with iFixit to provide repair kits direct to consumers.

“We’re under no illusion that this is going to be easy, but we know that when we do this work and when we do it the right way, we’ve seen meaningful progress,” Proctor says. “I’m pretty confident that it’s only a matter of time before we see some meaningful breakthrough somewhere, and it feels like the companies that are opposing us, some of them are starting to think that way too.”

Given Apple’s recent news, the tech giant might just be one of them ——if they can take their airpods out long enough to listen.

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