A glaring lack of right-to-repair protections touches just about everyone, from consumers to farmers and independent repair shops. But a new op-ed explains how this form of corporate greed even impacts the United States military.
Captain Elle Ekman, a logistics officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, penned an opinion column on the right-to-repair issue within the military for the New York Times. That essay, published Wednesday, begins with an anecdote about the author needing to repair a generator required to support training for the U.S. Army and the South Korean military. That repair, Ekman writes, couldn’t happen because of restrictions imposed by the generator’s warranty. Ekman also cites an incident while working in Okinawa, Japan, in which engines were shipped back to the U.S. for repairs because it was required by a contract. According to Ekman, getting the engines serviced was a monthslong process.
The idea behind right-to-repair protections is that anyone should be able and free to fix the things they own how they choose, including by taking them to an independent repair shop or doing it themselves. However, the companies that make the gadgets, vehicles, and other equipment we use often place unnecessary barriers in the way as a means to maintain control of the repair ecosystem.
That repair hurdles are impeding the operational needs of the U.S. military should come as little surprise. Still, it’s alarming to hear that this is the case when, and as Ekman notes, the military has the resources to do those repairs but cannot due to warranties, “specifications,” a lack of tools, guides, or software, and other measures put in place by commercial makers of these products to prevent DIY repairs. Ekman cites a gradual shift in power to commercial entities with whom the Defense Department does business as compounding many of the issues.
“The effects of the right-to-repair paradigm will become only more significant and restrictive as older military vehicles and systems are replaced with equipment that is more complex and involving more electronics,” Ekman writes. “Already complicated equipment designs lead to situations where the manufacturer is the only source for repairs.”
The right to repair our things has long been a state-level issue, but it reached the national stage earlier this year when Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom are running for the Democratic presidential nomination, announced their support of a right-to-repair law to protect farmers and the agricultural sector, which are buckling under the corporately mandated requirements needed to repair their farm equipment. But the need for right to repair affects all of our lives in ways we have become accustomized to overlooking.
When corporate monopolies are able to dictate how, when, and for how much our gadgets are able to be repaired, it undermines our consumer right to choose what to do with the products that we rightfully own. After all, who wants to pay exorbitant fees to Apple or any other tech monopoly when an independent repair shop just minutes from your house could do the repair for a fraction of the cost?
Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, told Gizmodo by email that the problem Ekman raises in her piece “illustrates the pervasiveness of repair monopolies and their very real-world consequences.”
“The military cannot possibly function without being able to fix their own stuff—but here we are. Farmers cannot put food on the table if they cannot fix their own stuff—but here we are,” Gordon-Byrne said. “Consumers are waking up to the fact they cannot fix their stuff either—and the legislative solution is in front of us. We don’t need to wait for the federal government to unlock monopolies—we can do it right now by passing right-to-repair legislation in any of multiple states.”
Gordon-Byrne noted the many bills that have been proposed in more than 20 states that hoped to secure right-to-repair protections for consumers. Gordon-Byrne said detractors of these proposals have described the bills as “too broad,” but she added that she doesn’t think “that argument is going to hold water going forward.”
“If we cannot fix our phones and bulldozers while waging war,” she said, “we’ve really screwed ourselves.”