The Fight for the Right to Repair: Why It’s Getting Harder to Fix Your Own Stuff

Major technology manufacturers have been making it increasingly difficult for the average person to repair the items they produce. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, it’s us consumers who demand every new generation of smartphone be faster and lighter than the last. That doesn’t happen by magic. It takes fancy screws, special adhesives, and hundreds of impossibly tiny parts fitting together just right. The fact that we buy these devices by the millions every year shows we appreciate the craftsmanship.

What many people don’t appreciate, and what is starting to become a national issue, is the way in which big tech companies are piling on additional challenges to the would-be repairer. Manufacturers are restricting access to the tools, documentation, and software necessary to make even basic repairs, forcing consumers to either scrap their items when something goes wrong or spend the time and money to have the manufacturer fix it.

People across the country are starting to demand access to the parts and information necessary to at least try to figure things out on our own. It’s been dubbed “The Right to Repair” movement, and it’s gaining steam: There are now right to repair initiatives on the midterm election ballots in 18 states.

These initiatives, if passed, would require manufacturers to provide buyers with diagnostic and repair documentation and make available for purchase the parts needed, including software updates.

The Problem

Here are some of the ways manufacturers make it difficult or downright impossible for independent repair shops and DIYers to fix their products:

  • Apple, the largest company in the world by market capitalization, introduced proprietary screws for their iPhones that they do not sell to repair shops, forcing independent shops to reverse engineer them if they want a shot at fixing the devices. They also refuse to provide full diagnostic manuals for their devices and use their lobbying might to crush legislation that would compel them to do so.
  • John Deere refuses to provide simple information that could allow people to repair their tractors, claiming that doing so would lead to rampant intellectual property theft. They even go as far as to say you can never really “own” one of their tractors because of all the proprietary software embedded in every machine.
  • Nikon stopped selling replacement camera parts to independent repair shops altogether in 2012, and many companies now restrict access to their repair manuals because of copyright concerns.

The list of affronts to the would-be repairer goes on and on, and the message is clear: You should get repairs done by the original manufacturer, no matter how long it takes or how much money it costs, or you should buy a new product.

The manufacturers claim that it’s all for our own good. Tech industry lobbying groups claim that allowing regular folks to repair their devices is too dangerous and too fraught with the chance of intellectual property theft. They say that allowing any Joe Schmo to tinker with their device could destroy a company’s competitive advantage, that allowing third-party repair puts the consumer at risk of a cyber attack, and that repairs can be highly dangerous.

These hyped-up claims have always rankled consumers and repair shop owners, but lately things have come to a head. Farmers, the repair community, and sustainability advocates are especially fed up with the current state of affairs.

Farmers Fight Back

Much like modern cars, modern tractors have complex onboard computers. So, when something goes wrong, the fix often requires looking into not just the nuts and bolts, but the the operating system of the onboard computer.

But companies like John Deere are not releasing the information necessary to allow people to fix these issues. This causes massive delays while technicians are brought out to repair faulty sensors that are causing full-on computer shutdowns of otherwise perfectly functioning machines. Farmers feel like they’re being hung out to dry, in part because it’s lucrative for the manufacturers to maintain their monopoly on repairs.

John Deere’s stance is that a large fraction of those trying to tinker with its onboard computers are likely to be unscrupulous “pirates” who will free ride off John Deere’s ingenuity and steal its secrets. As if my farming friends in Wisconsin don’t really want to fix their tractors. No, their actual goal, once they get the repair manual, is to don an eye patch, grow a beard, and sell valuable code on the dark web.

The absurdity of it all has led to significant tension between farmers and equipment manufacturers and has galvanized millions of American farmers to fight for the right to repair.

Fixers Just Want a Chance

Studies show that most problems with our devices arise because of simple accidents, such as dropping the phone and cracking the screen. In theory, simple accidents should require simple fixes. With increasingly complex smartphones and restrictions on what diagnostic information is given to repair shops, that’s no longer the case.

Those working at repair shops say that removing the screens from modern smartphones is a maddening and tedious process, and that they “cannot safely open a growing number of devices without specialized documentation, diagnostic software, and tools.” Plus, once you figure out one version of a phone, the next version might use a whole different set of materials.

And that’s just the screen. The difficulties multiply if you’re trying to assess problems with the battery, the microchip, or the software. Because we pay good money for these devices, we feel we have the right to maintain them as we see fit. As the online repair site iFixit.org puts it, “Would you buy a car if it was illegal to replace the tires? Would you buy a bike if you couldn’t fix the chain?” The absurdity of those rhetorical questions highlights just silly it would be to make it illegal to fix our phones and tractors.

Until we see how all the legislation plays out, fixers are encouraging people to purchase items based on how easy they are to repair.

A Right to Reduce Waste

Electronic waste is toxic, and the amount of it in the world is increasing. Outdated or difficult-to-repair items are swelling landfills with 49 million tons of e-waste per year, an issue the World Health Organization sees as a massive problem. A big reason for all the waste is that consumers simply find it easier to chuck their old devices than to take the effort to fix them.

Regulatory bodies are supposed to reduce the problem by encouraging sustainable practices by manufacturers. Companies are required to meet certain standards when it comes to repairability, battery removal, and device longevity. But in practice, tech company representatives dominate the boards of such institutions and routinely oppose efforts to broaden reuse and repair.

Right to repair advocates recognize the e-waste problem and believe that forcing tech companies to release diagnostic information will ease the problem. As a comprehensive report on green technology standards by repair.org puts it, “We need strong green electronics standards that encourage long-lasting products; the future of our planet depends on it.”

Summing Up

I’m happy that companies have made powerful and light devices. That said, I want the option to continue fixing my own computer and phone. And if I can’t do it myself, I love having access to a repair community or a local repair shop that can help me out. To me, outlawing those things would be like outlawing baseball: Simply un-American.

It’s encouraging that there is a precedent for these kinds of right to repair movements. Massachusetts voters were able to pass a right to repair act centered on automobile repair in 2012 that compelled automobile manufacturers to provide vehicle owners and independent mechanics with the diagnostic and safety information needed to repair their cars.

I hope that we can find a way to have both amazing technology and the right to repair it ourselves, and I’m optimistic we’ll eventually figure out a solution.

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