The fix is in: How right-to-repair laws can improve tech and the environment

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Jason Tashea

Jason Tashea. Photo by Saverio Truglia.

Three weeks ago, my hard drive crashed.

Corrupted beyond repair, I was left scrambling for a solution to fix my mid-2012 MacBook Pro. Not easily enticed by the siren song of a new product, I wanted to make my computer work again at minimal cost.

Doing the work myself saved me from paying someone a premium and avoided repair-store purgatory. About 10 days and an Amazon order later, I was up and running again.

Since my laptop is older, it lent itself to easy, at-home fixing, but the ability to fix one’s technology is in rapid decline. If my computer were just slightly newer, it would have made it more difficult to do the work myself—not because of complexity, but because of design.

Limiting people’s ability to repair their own property is wrong, yet it has become the technology industry’s standard. As companies look to confound consumers’ ability to fix their electronics, they are creating an expensive, wasteful and unnecessary hardship on consumers’ pocketbooks and the environment. While there is a growing movement of online resources—like iFixit—to empower people to repair their devices, some states, under pressure from consumer advocates, are looking to improve consumers’ right to repair.

Corporate limitations on consumers’ ability to repair their tech are prolific. Usually it’s something obnoxious like a battery that can’t be removed from its cradle or hidden or proprietary screws. Examples only get more egregious from there.

In 2016, Apple came under scrutiny for bricking iPhones that were repaired outside of their authorized service network. Apple claimed cheap parts and worse labor were the problem, but it later admitted it was an intentional feature of their software. Under pressure, they apologized and restored the phones.

However, that didn’t stop them from throttling older iPhones to boost sales, finally owning up to it in 2017. Nor did it change their design choices. iFixit’s reviews of Apple products show that they are becoming harder to repair with each new release.

They aren’t alone.

In 2017, iFixit did a teardown of a new Microsoft Surface. Finding it was impossible to open the device without destroying it, they called it a “Russian nesting doll from hell,” according to an article from Motherboard. In 2012, camera manufacturer Nikon stopped selling replacement parts to independent repair stores, giving it a monopoly over the repair of its products.

The impact of these limits are compounded by the planned obsolescence of consumer technology. This is not only expensive; it has put consumers in vicious cycle that is devastating the environment.

From the excavation of hard-to-attain rare earth metals to the effluent created in the development of new devices to the landfill-stuffing disposal of mercury-leaking consumer electronics, technology is a dirty business.

The Environmental Protection Agency said that 3.09 million tons of electronics waste was created in the U.S. in 2015. More than 60 percent was not recycled. The United Nations estimates there will be more than 55 million tons of e-waste worldwide this year.

Even if people try to recycle their electronics, the process can be fraught. Since spring of this year, lithium-ion batteries have been responsible for fires at least eight recycling facilities, according to the Washington Post. In other instances, taking apart devices for recycling can cause damage to human health, according to the U.N. Environmental Management Group.

For those interested in exploring their own ability to repair their devices, iFixit has walk-throughs that can help even the least technically inclined save some money and breathe new life into their tech. If a device is beyond repair, recycling centers around the U.S. can help dispose of electronics responsibly.

However, the size and scope of the problem requires more than squeezing an extra year or two out of a laptop. That’s why the Repair Association, an advocacy coalition founded in 2013, is promoting “Right to Repair” legislation in states across the U.S.

“Every consumer that buys ‘stuff’ with embedded integrated circuits (chips) is limited in how they use personal property—in ways never envisioned a decade ago,” says Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the association. “This is why right-to-repair is necessary.”

Introduced in 18 states, bills vary. Some focus on farming equipment, like in Kansas and Wyoming, because of limitations created by manufacturers. In other states, bills take on consumer electronics that would require manufacturers to make repair guides, repair parts and diagnostic software available to consumers and independent repair shops.

This approach is not universally adored. Apple, AT&T Inc., John Deere and Microsoft, among associated trade lobby groups, oppose this type of legislation. They claim that right-to-repair legislation will create security problems and infringe on their intellectual property. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, for example, companies can claim ownership over their firmware, making it illegal for the rightful owner to alter it, like in the case of replacing a disk drive in an Xbox or maintaining a tractor with an onboard computer.

A version of the association’s right-to-repair bill regarding consumer technology hasn’t been passed yet. But there is evidence that this type of legislation, passed just once, could have a nationwide impact.

In 2012, Massachusetts voters approved such a law regarding automotive manufacturers. Once law, it gave vehicle owners access to the diagnostic and repair information that dealers and authorized repair facilities already had. While only affecting vehicles in Massachusetts, by 2014, the law became the national standard for the auto industry.

With this in mind, Gordon-Byrne is optimistic. She expects at least one state to pass a right-to-repair bill during the 2019 legislative session.

Regardless of theses legislative efforts, not everyone is going to feel comfortable pulling their device apart—and, in some cases, you might not want to. Newer waterproof smartphones, for example, can lose that protective magic as soon as you pop off the cover.

However, anyone can support the passage of right-to-repair legislation, improving consumer rights and diminishing environmental harms. Even if it’s just making repair manuals and replacement parts available to consumers, it’s a simple fix that can go a long way.

Jason Tashea is the author of the Law Scribbler column and a legal affairs writer for the ABA Journal. Follow him on Twitter @LawScribbler.

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