Why the right-to-repair movement is a big headache for Big Tech

apple right to repair to program
Apple’s Independent Repair Provider Program will soon expand to more than 200 countries.

“Planned obsolescence” is a phrase right-to-repair advocates want banished from the language and increasingly they’re getting support from governments across the world. 

The goal? To cut down an estimated 50 million metric tons of e-waste  – any device with a plug or battery – that’s disposed of worldwide every year (New Zealand contributes an estimated 80,000 tonnes of that.) 

Much of that waste contains toxic elements like lead, mercury, cadmium, and other harmful chemicals and there’s a risk that hazardous substances will leach from landfills into surrounding land and waterways.

At the moment if something goes wrong with a household appliance, games console, computer or smartphone consumers don’t have the option to repair it themselves, or to take it to a third party of their choice – with manufacturers forcing consumers to use their approved repairers.

Even then it’s often an unnecessarily expensive option – and many choose to throw the product out and buy a new one. The restrictions also hurt small businesses and infringe on consumer’s rights and lead to anti-competitive pricing.

Apple, for example, refuses to provide spare parts outside of their repair network. Often the repair is something any competent tech can fix but the parts or any repair information aren’t available to them.

The repair movement has found an unlikely ally in Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

“Companies inhibit [the right-to-repair] because it gives the companies power, control, over everything. It’s time to start doing the right things,” he told right-to-repair campaigner Louis Rossmann last week on Cameo.

Wozniak famously turned his TV into an early computer monitor for the Apple 1, but fears that, because of repair restrictions, future innovation will be limited.

“I didn’t have to afford something I could never afford. I wasn’t restricted from anything that kept me from building that computer and showing the world that the future of personal computers is going to be a keyboard and a TV.

“That all came from being able to repair things, and modify them, and tap into them yourself.”

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@Ashkan_Forouzani

Repair Right gains traction

Earlier this month President Biden issued an executive order to promote economic competition, calling on the Federal Trade Commission to force tech companies to allow consumers to fix their own electronic devices. At least 27 states have considered right-to-repair legislation.

The UK – a country that produces more e-waste per person than any other country in the world except Norway, according to the Global E-Waste Monitor – has introduced legislation that requires manufacturers to make spare parts available for up to ten years after an appliance stops being produced.

Australia’s taking action too – Australia’s Productivity Commission is investigating the issue with a report to be delivered to the government in October.

Despite our clean and green profile New Zealand doesn’t yet have a centralised e-waste recycling scheme although the Ministry for the Environment is looking into various product stewardship schemes and regulations.

Some retailers like Noel Leeming are taking the initiative and introducing their own.

WasteMINZ, which works with industry partners, the Ministry for the Environment, other local and government agencies, believes part of the solution lies in an improved Waste Minimisation and Consumer Guarantees Act. 

This might include defining the lifetime of an electronic product in which spare parts and repairs must be available or removing the ability for retailers to require a refundable fee before an item is sent to the manufacturer for repair as the fee stops many from proceeding.

At present manufacturers don’t have to provide spare parts or repair services if consumers are told they aren’t available at the time of purchase.

WasteMINZ also wants the waste hierarchy – which establishes preferred program priorities based on sustainability – embedded in our WMA.

Why is Big Tech so opposed?

Big Tech – usually keen to boast about their environmental efforts – last year the iPhone12 shipped without a charger in an effort Apple said to reduce “package waste” – don’t want a bar of this.

Google, Apple, Microsoft and others including Huawei and Samsung all oppose the right-to-repair measures citing safety, cybersecurity and intellectual property concerns.

Apple has been especially vocal through its various lobbyists. 

At present, if an unauthorised person tries to replace parts on an iPhone a smartphone lock system is triggered and can only be unlocked by Apple.

Though it is hard to see how simple repairs like replacing a battery or fixing a smartphone home button compromises cybersecurity.

That’s supported by the US Copyright Office that concluded in 2016 that repair is not an infringement and that manufacturers have been removing existing legal rights through unfair and deceptive contracts.

Of course, what the tech firms don’t say is that they profit greatly from the constant churn of new devices and the service contracts they receive from authorised repairers. Consumers fixing their products instead of purchasing new ones isn’t a great business model.

“These companies have monopoly power,” Brianna Titone, a Colorado legislator who sponsored a repair bill, told Bloomberg

“They’re not looking for a compromise. They’re looking for, “Leave us alone. Stop this. Go away.””

But that’s not going to happen.

New FTC chair Lina Kahn – a vociferous Big Tech critic – may well be “right-to-repairs” most powerful advocate. It’s almost certain Kahn will incorporate the right-to-repair order Biden has thrown her into the various Big Tech anti-competitive FTC investigations already underway, turning up the pressure on the recalcitrant tech giants.

If the movement did get traction on a federal level it would not only cut the big tech firm’s revenue but might also require certain products – like Apple’s AirPods for instance – which iFixit found would take so much effort to fix consumers would choose to buy a new pair instead – to undergo a redesign. 

It would also embolden other governments’ to pursue e-waste efforts.

NZ’s first Apple-approved IRP

In a small win for repair advocates, Apple has finally allowed independent technicians access to genuine parts and equipment to repair iPhones as long as they complete the company’s certification course.

That’s something that NZFix.co.nz did and, in May, became New Zealand’s first Apple Independent Repair Provider (IRP) approved by Apple (they also repair other brands.)

IRPs have access to Apple genuine parts, tools, training, diagnostics, and resources and can perform a variety of out-of-warranty repairs, like display and video card replacements and battery replacements for iPhone and Mac.

Operations manager Simran Singh says the company promotes the circular economy – which advocates that products, parts, and materials are used, repaired, reused, and recycled as much as possible.

His message is simple.

“Love your water, environment, and give your technology a second chance to help prevent them ending up in landfills.” 

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