We all have heard the maxim of retailers everywhere: "You break it, you bought it." Increasingly, however, consumers are demanding a corollary: "I bought it, I fix it."
None of us expect the things we buy to last forever, but many are surprised to learn that if many of the products you buy break, you cannot actually repair them on your own, even if you know how.
For years, manufacturers of many types of equipment, appliances, and electronic devices have made it difficult or downright impossible for you to repair a device yourself, or to take it to an independent repair shop unaffiliated with the manufacturer. Manufacturers do that in a number of ways, but mainly by restricting access to the parts and information needed for repairs. That has forced consumers to either buy new equipment or pay more for repairs from authorized repair shops.
"Manufacturers often use their control over the availability of materials to force consumers to rely on manufacturers or authorized repair services, which are often more expensive, less convenient, and less timely than self-repair or independent providers," says Aaron Perzanowski, Lacchia Professor of Law at the University of Michigan.
This has resulted in high-profile incidents in which the owners of expensive equipment have been penalized for attempting to repair their purchases themselves. For years, tractor company John Deere has required farmers to pay authorized dealers to electronically unlock their machines for repairs. Apple faces class-action lawsuits that allege it threatens device owners with the loss of warranty coverage if they try to fix their latest iGadget.
However, consumer advocates are not taking this sitting down. Recent laws passed in the U.S. and European Union (EU) give advocates hope that the situation is swaying in favor of the consumer after a decades-long advocacy battle.
Welcome to the war over the "right to repair." On one side, manufacturers argue that they deserve control over the repair of their products for a range of security, privacy, and intellectual property reasons. On the other, consumer advocates are fighting tooth and nail to pass legislation that puts the right of repair squarely in the hands of the people.
And, for the first time, the people are starting to win.
The first major battlefront in the right-to-repair war was the automobile industry, which used to severely restrict the information independent repair shops could access on vehicles. That started to change in 2012, with the passage of the first successful right to repair law in Massachusetts. The law put critical repair information previously jealously guarded by dealers into the hands of independent body shops, and subsequently became a national standard.
After that, right-to-repair laws began to appear in other industries and have steadily gained in popularity, says Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association (www.repair.org), an advocacy group. Since that time, The Repair Association has helped legislators file more than 150 bills in the U.S.
Each U.S. bill differs in content and scope—and not all of them are successful—but they all share a basic premise: Require that manufacturers make available to owners and independent repair outfits the same parts, tools, and information needed to fix equipment that are available to branded or affiliated repair providers. European right-to-repair laws strike a similar tone.
There were some early right-to-repair legislative victories in the 2010s, but it was slow going until recently. Manufacturers put up heavy resistance to right-to-repair efforts. Advocates say the resistance is focused on the manufacturer's bottom line.
Manufacturers, however, cite a range of reasons for opposing right-to-repair efforts, a major one being that they are protecting consumers from cybersecurity threats by controlling how devices are accessed. However, plenty of advocates challenge that logic. Experts like Dr. Richard Forno at Stanford University have testified to state legislatures that these concerns are baseless. We experience severe cybersecurity threats constantly, none of which result from having access to parts or repair manuals, as Forno told the Maryland state legislature in 2021.
There are signs that advocates are getting through to lawmakers.
In 2020, the EU first announced bloc-wide right-to-repair legislation, says Michael Stead, a lecturer in sustainable design at Lancaster University.
In the U.S., the first right-to-repair law specifically covering consumer electronics was passed in 2022. It is a New York State law called the Digital Fair Repair Act, which guarantees some repair rights for consumers, including the right to obtain manuals, parts, and other key resources from manufacturers to repair their own devices. Thanks to these recent victories, the right-to-repair movement appears galvanized, and similar legislation is expected in dozens of U.S. states.
"What we've seen over the past few years is a recognition by consumers and lawmakers that the same repair tools around access to parts, tools, and repair information that have proven essential in the automotive space ought to apply to the other devices that we rely on every day," says Perzanowski.
Yet the New York law illustrates what an uphill battle that will be—and shows how the nature of warfare between manufacturers and right-to-repair advocates has evolved.
Thanks to heavy lobbying from technology companies, the New York law was amended at the last minute to provide manufacturers with a number of exceptions. The bill, now signed into law, allows manufacturers to sell parts assemblies instead of individual parts. It also does not require manufacturers to provide security codes to unlock features in devices. Manufacturers argued these measures protect users.
Advocates, however, see it as setting a worrying precedent.
"Most companies understand that the right to repair is now incredibly popular among consumers, so they are reluctant to speak out publicly against these bills," says Paznowski. "But they are more than happy to send paid lobbyists and trade association representatives to dissuade lawmakers."
In 2020, the EU announced blocwide right-to-repair legislation. The first U.S. right-to-repair law specifically covering electronics was passed in 2022.
While such lobbying will not always prevent legislation, it will water it down, says Luyi Yang, an assistant professor of operations and IT management at the University of California, Berkeley. "I do expect more right-to-repair laws to pass, but most likely with strings attached," he says.
The situation is not all doom and gloom. There are some signs manufacturers are changing their ways.
In 2022, Apple began its Self Service Repair program in the U.S. and Europe. The program now allows consumers to buy official Apple parts and manuals to repair certain devices.
Earlier this year, John Deere signed a Memorandum of Understanding with trade association the American Farm Bureau Federation to facilitate the right to repair. The document commits John Deere to making more parts and tools accessible to farmers so they can repair their own equipment.
A number of companies are even fully embracing the right to repair. Also this year, Nokia announced a smartphone designed to be repaired by its owner in partnership with repair site iFixit. Phone owners will be able (and encouraged) to fix the phone's screen, charging port, and battery themselves.
However, there is still plenty of work to be done securing the right to repair for consumers. Companies like Nokia are today "exceptions to the rule," says Stead. Existing laws are still lacking.
"The conversation has shifted a bit from repair advocates accusing manufacturers of restricting repair, to repair advocates arguing that industry self-regulation and currently passed laws are not sufficient and calling for more regulations," says Yang.
Critically, much right-to-repair legislation that exists today does not apply to Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Manufacturers argue they need to retain control over Internet-connected products to protect consumers from cybersecurity threats, says Stead.
"But that control sometimes seems to exploit their customers," he says, noting that this has a material impact on both consumer rights and the environment.
"Many of these products will be destined for a landfill within a few short years if entrenched design and manufacturing practices predicated on planned obsolescence persist."
In fact, electronic or electrical waste (e-waste)—electronic or electrical products thrown away after reaching the end of their useful life—is a growing problem. In the EU, e-waste is one of the fastest-growing waste streams, and the bloc reckons less than 40% of this waste is recycled.
Extending right-to-repair actions to IoT devices would go a long way toward solving that problem.
"Ultimately, extending the longevity of IoT devices through repair would help decrease emissions, toxic landfill, and material scarcity, both in the U.K. and the rest of the world," says Stead.
Another major issue unresolved by current efforts is the End User License Agreement (EULA), also known as the big block of text none of us read and all of us accept when we buy a device or piece of equipment. These agreements are intentionally structured to curb the right to repair, says The Repair Association's Gordon-Byrne. John Deere's EULA was, in part, responsible for restricting farmer access to its equipment.
In some cases, it seems using EULAs to restrict right-to-repair capabilities is intentional. In others, it may be a purely accidental unanticipated consequence of other restrictions. In any event, the result is the same.
"People who think they own their purchases find out otherwise when they do things such as open the case, customize or upgrade a product, try to use a third party to help with repair, use a used part or a third-party part, or even donate or resell their property," she says.
In some cases, these challenges have right-to-repair advocates circumventing legal recourse entirely and going direct to consumers. Stead and colleagues at Lancaster University started a project called The Repair Shop 2049, which investigates how to empower ordinary people to learn to repair their own IoT devices. They conduct research and collaborate with amateur tinkerers, third-party repairers, local politicians, and the manufacturers themselves.
As they did when they started the fight, advocates are taking inspiration from the automobile industry. In a relatively short time, car repair went from being exclusively dominated by dealerships to being able to be performed by independent shops and consumers themselves in relatively unrestricted fashion. Right-to-repair law in the automobile industry quickly became a national standard.
"If it can work for cars, there's no reason to think it can't work for phones, laptops, and tractors," says Perzanowski.
Apple Sued by Customers Over Right to Repair Their Own Devices, Bloomberg Law, Apr. 14, 2022, https://bit.ly/41CTSBv
New York breaks the right to repair bill as it's signed into law, The Verge, Dec. 29, 2022, https://bit.ly/3LtybOB
Challenging Cybersecurity as the Reason to Oppose the Consumer Right to Repair, Stanford Law School, Jan. 28, 2021, https://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blog/2021/01/challenging-cybersecurity-reason-oppose-consumer-right-repair
U.S. farmers win right to repair John Deere equipment, BBC, Jan. 9, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-64206913
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