Why We Must Fight for the Right to Repair Our Electronics

Pending U.S. legislation could force manufacturers to make repair parts and information available at fair prices

9 min read
Photo of a smart phone surrounded by tools
Photo: The Voorhes

The Consumer Technology Association estimated that residents of the United States bought 183 million smartphones in 2016. There are already as many TVs in this country as there are people. That’s a lot of electronics, and these numbers are just going up.

On balance, all this technology is probably making our lives better. But there’s a downside, too: The stuff often malfunctions. Unlike the 30-year-old mixer on your kitchen counter that refuses to die, new technology—especially the smart devices with fancy, embedded electronics—breaks more quickly. That trend, confirmed by a recent study by the German government, applies not just to delicate products like smartphones and tablets but also to equipment we would expect to last for a long time—like televisions, washing machines, and even tractors.

Manufacturers would prefer to sell you their latest models rather than repair your old electronics, so they work to make fixing their products too expensive or too impractical. It’s a global problem because the marketplace for technology is global, and people everywhere are affected. With so many people throwing out so much broken stuff, it should come as no surprise that e-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream, with tens of millions of tons discarded annually around the world.

Tossing things out instead of fixing them has far-reaching consequences—for consumers, for the economy, and for the environment. Indeed, a future in which nothing ever gets repaired isn’t bright for anyone except the people trying to sell you new products. And many of us are not prepared to accept that future without a fight.

In 2013, a group of concerned consumers, recyclers, refurbishers, environmentalists, digital-rights advocates, and repair specialists in the United States teamed up to found Repair.org, of which one of us (Gordon-Byrne) is executive director and the other (Wiens) is chairman of the board. We’re working to make sure that when something breaks, U.S. consumers can easily find the information and parts they need to repair it, or else have it repaired by whomever they choose.

Over the past few years, this battle has been heating up. In 2017, twelve states introduced “right to repair” legislation that would make it easier for consumers to fix broken digital equipment. With grassroots support, Repair.org is leading the charge to turn these bills into laws. Not surprisingly, we’ve encountered significant resistance, not from lawmakers but from lobbyists hired by large tech companies to kill right-to-repair bills behind closed doors.

You might think that these legislative battles are inconsequential or don’t have too much to do with you personally. But if you believe that when you buy something you actually own it, you should pay attention as we explain why that may not be the case and give the history of how we got to today’s very odd situation.

img Photo: The Voorhes

People have been fixing electronic devices for as long as they have existed. You know the drill: When something breaks, you troubleshoot the problem, take the thing apart, fix or replace the failed component or subassembly, and turn the machine back on. If it works, great. If not, try again. It’s as simple as that.

The trouble with repairing computerized products—a category that just keeps growing and includes pretty much anything you plug into the wall or run off a battery these days—is that the path to repair isn’t always so straightforward. Sometimes it’s easy to see that a connection has come loose or that a capacitor has gone bad, but for the most part identifying and correcting the underlying problem requires sophisticated diagnostic tools and detailed service documentation. If the manufacturer refuses to provide those things, repair is still possible, but it’s a lot more difficult. Every repair becomes an R&D project.

In past decades, companies that made electronic equipment typically provided the information needed for repair—and usually free of charge. Computers came with schematic diagrams showing how the various components on the circuit boards were connected. Even Apple, now one of the most repair-unfriendly gadget makers in the business, sent a free, exhaustive manual—complete with schematics—to owners of the Apple II. It was expected that many owners would repair and maybe even tinker with their equipment.

But as the years went on, this kind of information became scarcer. It’s ironic. We live in the age of information. And yet, at the very moment when information about how to repair electronics should be easiest for owners to get their hands on, it has dried up.

That scarcity is by design. Manufacturers don’t want you to fix that broken microwave or air conditioner; they want you to buy a new one. Some even send cease-and-desist letters to people who post repair information online. Back in 2012, Toshiba told laptop repair tech Tim Hicks that he needed to remove 300 PDFs of Toshiba’s official repair manuals from his website, where he was offering the information for free. To avoid being sued, Hicks complied, and now fewer people have the guidance they need to repair Toshiba laptops.

Toshiba isn’t the only guilty party. Go to Apple’s website and try to find a repair manual for a MacBook Pro. It’s not there. Go to Samsung’s website and look for ways to fix your flat-screen TV. You’ll come away empty-handed. Same for your Keurig. Or your Kindle. Or your GoPro. Or your Lexmark printer that’s always broken. You’ll probably find user manuals and perhaps a few other online resources created by people who figured out how to fix the broken product on their own. But manufacturers by and large remain silent on the topic of repair.

Instead, they put official service information and diagnostic tools behind passwords and paywalls, limiting the distribution of repair information to a select few “authorized” providers. Without access to repair instructions, customers are forced to use these authorized service centers, which can charge high prices because there are no alternatives—except perhaps buying a  new device.

That’s why one of us (Wiens) created iFixit, a company that takes apart popular models of consumer electronics to reverse-engineer repair instructions and then posts the information for free online. The instructions come from iFixit, not the manufacturer, so iFixit can’t be sued for disseminating proprietary repair information.

E-Waste Outstrips Population

chart Source: The Global E-Waste Monitor 2014, Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability/United Nations University

Even if you happen to find repair instructions on iFixit’s website or elsewhere, you still have to locate replacement parts. In some cases, parts are so difficult to get from the manufacturer that people instead extract them from junked equipment, as if they were harvesting organs from the recently deceased. Things are even harder for small repair shops, which struggle to find reliable sources of high-quality replacement parts.

The lack of service parts is an especially big impediment when it comes to repairing smartphones, tablets, and gaming devices. Together, those products number in the billions, and yet many models have no independent sources for fragile items like glass. That’s crazy because glass, of course, breaks frequently. Fixing it is a big business for phone manufacturers like Apple and Samsung, which are fighting vigorously to protect their monopolies on repair. As of September 2014, gadget insurance company SquareTrade estimated that Americans had spent US $10.7 billion on iPhone repairs since the phone’s 2007 introduction.

Apple may be the worst offender when it comes to refusing to sell service parts or provide repair information to anyone but its authorized service providers. The company doesn’t even provide such information for equipment that Apple won’t repair anymore (Apple has a long list of “vintage and obsolete” devices it no longer supports) or for repairs that its “Geniuses” aren’t skilled enough to do, like fixing a computer’s motherboard.

In 2015, the company went even further—remotely disabling iPhones whose screens had been repaired outside of Apple’s authorized network. One of those dead devices belonged to Antonio Olmos, a photographer for The Guardian. He broke his screen while covering the refugee crisis in the Balkans. There’s no Apple store in Macedonia, so Olmos had a local repair shop replace the broken screen with an aftermarket part. It worked great. Months later, though, after a routine software update, Olmos’s phone stopped working simply because of that screen.

At first, Apple defended “error 53” (as the problem was identified) as a security measure. The company blamed unauthorized repair shops: “When an iPhone is serviced by an unauthorised repair provider, faulty screens or other invalid components that affect the touch ID sensor could cause the check to fail if the pairing cannot be validated. With a subsequent update or restore, additional security checks result in an ‘error 53’ being displayed,” an Apple spokesperson told The Guardian.

But that explanation didn’t fly with owners. Independent repair shops didn’t break these phones; Apple did. And the aftermarket screens hadn’t been faulty; they just hadn’t been made by the original equipment manufacturer—because Apple refuses to sell OEM screens to independent repair shops.

Bowing to public pressure, Apple apologized and fixed the broken phones with a new update. But a precedent had been set. Previously, Apple had made it difficult for people to fix its products by restricting access to parts and service information. Now, to those owners who dared to repair their equipment without the company’s blessing, Apple could dole out punishment—with software.

img

img No Serviceable Parts: Or so manufacturers would have people believe when it comes to electronic devices such as smart watches and mobile phones. But repair is often possible, using replacement parts and instructions from other sources. Photos: iFixit

In 2011, the entrepreneur and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen quipped in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal that “software is eating the world”—meaning that it’s now in pretty much everything: phones, microwave ovens, coffeemakers, sewing machines, even Barbies. And it’s threatening to gobble up repair with it.

All computerized equipment comes with embedded software—code that tells the machine what to do and how its components should function together. Without that code, our coffee doesn’t brew, our cars don’t shift gears, and our sewing machines can’t stitch.

When you buy such a machine, the hardware becomes yours. But if you ask manufacturers, they’ll say that the software inside still belongs to them. It’s copyrighted, and most manufacturers don’t want you to touch it, even if the thing is broken. And thanks to a controversial U.S. law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) [PDF], manufacturers are allowed to put digital locks on the code to stop people from meddling with (or even looking at) it. The European Union’s Copyright Directive has similar provisions. Originally, these sorts of laws were designed to prevent pirates from copying movies and music. But, increasingly, manufacturers use them to maintain control of the products they sell to you.

Lexmark famously used the DMCA to sue Static Control Components, which was making chips that allowed other companies to refill Lexmark toner cartridges and sell them again. Recently, HP went so far as remotely disabling unlicensed cartridges installed in its printers. Even John Deere deploys digital locks to make sure that only its own technicians can fix anything software-related on its agricultural machines.

When asked why it was standing in the way of farmers who want to fix their own tractors, the company replied that farmers didn’t really own their tractors. According to John Deere [PDF], farmers have only “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle,” and farmers (or their mechanics) aren’t allowed to fiddle with the software to effect a repair.

Naturally, that position upset a lot of farmers, who assumed that when they plopped down $75,000 or more for a new tractor, they were buying the whole thing. They felt they should be able to fix their tractors on their own terms. And it turns out that the farmers were right.

Authorities in the U.S. Copyright Office—who presumably have a deeper knowledge of U.S. copyright law than John Deere does—have generally sided with consumers when it comes to repair. In 2015, copyright officials told John Deere that owners do have the right to repair their own tractors and other equipment. And, in December 2016, the copyright office concluded a yearlong study [PDF] on copyright law, repair, and embedded software that solidly confirms that repair is legal under copyright law. The same study argues that federal copyright law can’t be used as an excuse to prevent repair.

But that hasn’t stopped some manufacturers from continuing to try. For example, as part of John Deere’s 2016 End User Licensing Agreement, the buyer agrees to give up all control over the electronics within the machine—including sensors, actuators, and computing units, as well as data, documentation, and diagnostics. What’s more, the buyer is assumed to have agreed to the contract simply by switching on the machine [PDF]. There is no discussion. No negotiation. No signature requirement. Just turn the key and you waive your right to own critical parts of the machine you just bought.

So how can people in the United States preserve their right to repair electronics? The answer is now apparent: through right-to-repair legislation enacted at the state level.

Popular support on this issue has been clear since 2012, when 86 percent of the voters in Massachusetts endorsed a ballot initiative that would “[require] motor vehicle manufacturers to allow vehicle owners and independent repair facilities in Massachusetts to have access to the same vehicle diagnostic and repair information made available to the manufacturers’ Massachusetts dealers and authorized repair facilities.”

Carmakers howled in protest, but after the law passed, they decided not to fight independent repair. Indeed, in January 2014 they entered into a national memorandum of understanding [PDF], voluntarily extending the terms of the Massachusetts law to the entire country. The commercial vehicle industry followed suit in October 2015.

Now we need right-to-repair legislation for other kinds of equipment, too, particularly electronic equipment, which is the focus of “digital right to repair” initiatives in many states.

Similar to the Massachusetts legislation for automobiles, these digital-right-to-repair proposals would require manufacturers to provide access to service documentation, tools, firmware, and diagnostic programs. They also would require manufacturers to sell replacement parts to consumers and independent repair facilities at reasonable prices.

The bills introduced this year in a dozen states have some variations. The ones in Kansas and Wyoming, for example, are limited to farm equipment. The one most likely to be adopted soon is in Massachusetts, which seeks to outlaw the monopoly on repair parts and information within the state. If it passes, electronics manufacturers will probably change their practices nationwide.

Consumers would then have more choices when something breaks. The next time your smartphone screen cracks, your microwave oven gets busted, or your TV dies, you may be able to get it fixed quickly, affordably, and fairly. And you, not the manufacturer, would decide where your equipment is repaired: at home, with the manufacturer, or at a local repair shop that you trust.

The right to repair electronics isn’t just about repair or even about technology⁠—it’s about ownership. You bought the thing, and therefore you own it—and not just part of it but all of it. And that means you should be able to fix it or get it fixed by whomever you choose. The terms of ownership shouldn’t change just because the product has a chip in it.

This article appears in the November 2017 print issue as “The Fight to Fix It.”

About the Author

Kyle Wiens is cofounder and CEO of iFixit. Gay Gordon-Byrne is executive director of Repair.org

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