Right to repair: Why tech giants want to stop you fixing devices

Posted May 4, 2017 by James Walker
"Right to repair" has become a common phrase over the past few years as consumers and lobbyists demand longer lifetimes from their devices. Industry giants are thwarting bills designed to let you repair your products, citing safety and legal concerns.
A selection of smartphones
A selection of smartphones
Philippe Huguen, AFP/File
The right to repair movement focuses on reversing the trend of embedding proprietary software into everyday equipment. Proponents of the idea have called attention to the increasing inability to repair devices ranging from smartphones to farm vehicles.
Preventing repair
Previously, most products could be fixed using a standard set of tools and generic repair knowledge obtained from books and local mechanics. This wide access to repair documentation and parts has traditionally enabled consumers to extend the life of their devices beyond their original point of failure.
In the modern world, this ease of repair is being progressively eroded. The use of software in products like household appliances and cars makes it harder for a typical owner to fix something if it goes wrong. Without knowledge of the product's programming, even basic problems can't be remedied.
Cellphones dumped in a pile
Discarded old cell phones, some with lithium-ion batteries.
Courtesy Geitan Lee,
Manufacturers often refuse to publish the service manuals for their devices. When mechanical details are provided, the software diagnostic codes used to identify key faults are usually kept reserved for internal use.
Firms like Apple intend you to bring your device to an official repairer if it needs fixing, actively preventing you from mending it yourself. If you try to, you'll face a myriad of complex disassembly procedures, using tools and screw types developed specifically for the phone. Apple's not alone in going out of its way to stop you opening its devices – according to repair guide specialists iFixit, Samsung's Galaxy S8 is also all but impossible to fix.
"Front and back glass make for double the crackability, and strong adhesive on both makes it tough to access the internals for any repair," iFixit noted in the negative section of its report. "Because of the curved screen, replacing the front glass without destroying the display is extremely difficult."
Hacking tractors
Earlier this year, the right to repair movement broke the headlines again, gaining worldwide attention. Reports exposed how U.S. farmers are hacking their tractors to install cracked firmware versions from Ukraine and other regions in Eastern Europe. This change allows the repair-blocking tools used by tractor manufacturers like John Deere and Case IH to be bypassed.
The tractor display at the first Silver Willow Classic car and truck show  Mansfield  Ontario.
The tractor display at the first Silver Willow Classic car and truck show, Mansfield, Ontario.
If a fault develops on a machine, farmers can get the part replaced at a local mechanic's workshop. The vehicle won't start up afterwards though, due to software mechanisms that require all installed parts to be approved by the manufacturer before use.
The owner has to pay a representative of John Deere or Case IH to drive out to the farm, connect a laptop to the tractor and then drive off again. As the software is proprietary and undocumented, there's nothing the farmer can do to avoid it. This has led to a black market of sorts for "unlocked" tractor firmware.
Blocking mechanics
Other cases have focused on how tech companies like Apple are driving small repair shops out of business. Apple refuses to provide official diagnostic and disassembly tools to third-party mechanics unless they join its Authorized Repairer scheme.
The terms and conditions of this program explicitly prevent firms from mentioning repairs for other kinds of phone on their websites. It also prohibits the repair of components not approved by Apple, forcing devices with cracked displays or motherboard problems to be shipped off to an Apple service centre for the work to be completed.
"Users are disempowered, trained to go hat in hand to the Apple store just to change a battery (rather than doing it themselves)," explains the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Independent repair shops are driven out of business. And the electronic waste piles up, as users discard their devices rather than fixing them or donating them for re-use."
Involving the law
The discontent around the locked-down nature of modern devices has inspired several right-to-repair bill proposals in U.S. states. They've met with fierce opposition and the right to repair isn't yet in law in the U.S. This year, a trial bill in Nebraska was shelved after lawmakers conceded to pressure from the corporations who've pledged to aggressively fight it.
Apple united with the tractor brands to argue that giving people access to repair tools would lead to intellectual property exposure and create a risk of personal injury. Representatives of the electronics industry told Minnesota lawmakers last year that customers could cut their hands on glass while trying to repair broken smartphone screens.
Nebraska State Capitol  Lincoln.
Nebraska State Capitol, Lincoln.
Sarah Korf/Flickr Creative Commons
John Deere has also vocally opposed right-to-repair bills, claiming its approach actually helps its customers. The company suggested that it intends to "protect consumers' significant investment in equipment" by forcing them to use first-party parts.
In other statements, John Deere implied farmers don't actually own their machines, instead receiving a license "to operate the vehicle." This compares hundred-thousand dollar machines to the kind of business model used by Microsoft to sell Windows.
Other right to repair bills are facing similar issues. Proposals are now being considered in New York, Massachusetts, Kansas, Wyoming, Illinois and Tennessee, as well as Nebraska and Minnesota. Representatives of the industry giants fighting the movement are attending each hearing, lobbying lawmakers against the idea. In Europe, basic and little-known legislation already exists. It stops far short of the complete bills being devised for the U.S.
Support through attention
The farmers and repair organisations trying to push the bills forward lack the strength of backing that the opposition has in plentiful supply. While momentum is rising, supporting groups recognise there's a long path ahead before consumer rights to repair are universally recognised.
The response to the movement so far – both from the industry and consumers – has affirmed the importance of the cause, demonstrating it's worthy of lawmakers' attention. Although there's yet to be any major wins, each case increases the visibility of the movement and helps to build support for the idea.
Senators backing the movement have noted that making the right to repair a part of law would positively benefit every consumer, something the industry's response has seemingly confirmed.
Many airlines last year barred all Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones over fire risk concerns  follow...
Many airlines last year barred all Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones over fire risk concerns, following reports of exploding lithium-ion batteries.
Ed Jones, AFP
"This legislation will positively impact all consumers, of all ages and income levels, by adding competition to the electronic repair market, and by paving the way for more innovation," Nebraska Senator Lydia Brasch, sponsor of the right-to-repair bill in the state, said to Ars Technica in March. "I did not realize how important this legislation is nationally until Apple sent lobbyists to my office to oppose it."
In the months and years ahead, it's possible Apple, John Deere and hundreds of other companies will be forced into publishing repair documents for their products, creating a more sustainable electronics market where traditional attitudes towards product ownership and lifecycles are restored. As the modern world has progressed, consumers have inadvertently conceded control of their devices' operation to their mega-corporation creators.
In turn, this has led to the destruction of decades-old repair businesses and the loss of the once prolific "make do and mend" mindset. With firms like Apple reliant on the rampant consumerism expressed in the two-year iPhone upgrade cycle, giving buyers a way to resist the planned obsolescence of most tech products would impact their bottom line. It's clear the tech giants won't be admitting defeat lightly, making the right-to-repair motion's future uncertain.