Take a second to look around you and consider the various gadgets within eyeshot. How many of them, if they broke, could you reasonably fix right now? Could you afford (or even know how) to repair your phone or computer? Your car? How about your coffee maker? Consider what you’d do with them if pricey repairs were only slightly less than the cost of an entirely new product.
These questions are not just hypotheticals. They’re front and center of the right to repair movement, which advocates for the right for consumers to fix the electronics and other items they own. But thanks to manufacturer repair monopolies, if something you own breaks, you’re potentially looking at fixes offered exclusively through the manufacturer itself or an authorized agent—and those ain’t cheap.
Right to repair recently got a boost from two 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, first from Senator Elizabeth Warren and most recently from Senator Bernie Sanders. While the proposal for a national right-to-repair law of both senators zeroed in on the agriculture and farming sector, right-to-repair groups have been pushing for state-level legislation for years. Here’s why.
Back in 2012, Massachusetts led the way on right-to-repair reform with the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act, which was signed into law in 2013 and mandated that automakers make available the parts and information necessary for repairs—a major victory for consumers. It’s been a springboard for right-to-repair bills in other states as well, though they’ve struggled to become law (thanks in no small part to shady corporate lobbying and the money manufacturers are willing to throw behind pushes against these initiatives—more on that in a bit).
As of March, around 20 states had considered right-to-repair bills to protect consumers’ ability to fix their property—be it through parts, software, or a network of local third-party businesses that keeps repairs accessible and affordable—and not just designated manufacturer partners, though some of those bills, such as one in Washington, are no longer active. These bills essentially aim to break the monopolistic death grip that companies have on unnecessarily expensive repairs and instead allow consumers to decide who they want to fix their stuff, be it an independent repair shop, a skilled friend, or hell, even themselves.
“[Right to repair] is about individual choice,” Nathan Proctor, who leads the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Right to Repair campaign, tells Gizmodo by phone. “Our argument is that you, as a person who purchases electronics—whether it’s a toaster or fridge or tractor or cell phone—have the right to fix it yourself or hire the agent of your choice, and that means whatever repair shop you feel like hiring to execute repairs.”
But in order to do those repairs, consumers or independent repair shops need access to the service information, spare parts, special tools, and repair software necessary to ensure that the process is both safe and effective. That’s where things get tricky.
Consider this: On smartphone screen repairs alone, Americans cough up a stupid amount of money—billions annually, if data collected by warranty provider SquareTrade is to be believed—as phone repairs can cost hundreds of dollars a pop. We are ever more technology-reliant, and that means that if something breaks and we cannot fix it (or cannot afford to fix it) ourselves, the only other option becomes replacing it. And when the cost of replacing something becomes nearly equal to just buying a newer version of that item, who wouldn’t opt for the new thing instead, even at a slightly higher price than the cost of fixing the old one?
But there’s the rub. Gay Gordon-Byrne, the executive director of the Repair Association, tells Gizmodo by phone that these arbitrarily hiked repairs costs are what tilt the market in favor of manufacturers. This inflated price of repair, she says, “has put a huge damper on the entire industry.”
“You’ve got to realize that the cost of repairs is cooked, they’re manipulated,” Gordon-Byrne says. “When the manufacturer has no competition, they are going to create a price that makes it an advantage for them.”
To say that this system enables companies to overcharge consumers would be a charitable understatement.
“Parts that should cost pennies are hundreds of dollars,” Proctor tells Gizmodo. “And I think that at some point there is probably market information that goes into that. So, ‘Well, if we charged people 50 percent of the cost of a new item for one replacement part, they’ll buy the new one.’ And if they control the price, they can just set it for whatever will drive the consumer behavior that they want. Because it’s a monopoly. There’s no competition. There are no options.”
Another problem, especially one facing people who rely on equipment to perform the basic functions of their jobs, is a shortage of quick and easy access to tools used for diagnostics. If a farmer has to haul a tractor many hundreds of miles for a repair, that farmer is looking at not only the cost of repairs but the exorbitant cost of moving heavy machinery. In another scenario created by this broken system, Proctor says, an individual may be at the whim of the schedule of a service agent, meaning they’re stuck waiting for someone to come tell them what’s wrong with their product; if those tools were instead available to an independent repair outfit, they could potentially have the problem fixed far quicker—and for significantly less money.
This is already a very bad situation; it hurts consumers and it hurts industries. But it gets worse: On top of this rigged cycle of predatory price gouging and consumer manipulation, there’s another serious problem: electric waste. E-waste describes the electronic stuff that’s no longer in use or no longer working—think out-of-commission appliances, old phones, dead computers, etc. The more stuff you buy, the more waste you’re likely to generate. And this problem is only made worse by a system that tricks us into believing there is no other way.
According to a 2017 report from the United Nations University, the production of e-waste grew to 45 million metric tonnes globally in 2016, with the report estimating that figure would hike to more than 52 million metric tonnes annually by 2021. Put another way, you could build 4,500 Eiffel Towers with that volume of discarded electronic stuff. As the UNU states in its report, the costs of mishandled e-waste can be catastrophic, polluting our air, soil, and water and affecting life at every level—and yes, that absolutely means human beings.
And here’s how this loops back with right-to-repair laws: If our stuff didn’t wear out so quickly (as if by design, you might say), many of us might be less inclined to chuck our gadgets and instead just fix them. I know I’d have spent far less on replacement phones, gizmos, and appliances if I’d been able to repair them on the cheap.
Both the environmental and monetary costs of a lack of right-to-repair protections are what powers outfits like iFixit, a hub for product tear-downs and free repair information. But even if there were no environmental toll from tossing our stuff aside so frequently, and even if this system didn’t keep us forever reliant on manufacturers for costly repairs in perpetuity, there are other hidden costs.
“I would argue that just for the future of technology and mankind, it’s essential that we have control of our products,” iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens tells Gizmodo by phone. “And one thing that I really worry about is, if we have a world where no one can tinker with their things, we’re not going to be training up the engineers of tomorrow. Kids today ought to be learning how to take this stuff apart and how it works because that’s what’s going to inspire them to be engineers—that they’re going to invent the iPhone 37 in a few years.”
Opposition to right-to-repair laws primarily comes courtesy of exactly who you might expect: the companies that want your money. Plenty of household names in electronics have attempted to block right-to-repair legislation, be it Apple, John Deere, or Microsoft. Proctor says that companies often assume the role of a “benevolent monopoly,” or one that ostensibly has the best interest of you, the person who buys its stuff, at heart. (Reminder: Companies are not your friend.)
Among the opposition’s foremost tactics for refusing to fork over repair information, Proctor says, is whatever works best to jolt legislators, be it security, privacy, or safety (even if the claims are largely baseless). Specifically to that last point, manufacturers often argue that third-party repairs could be unsafe for consumers and technicians—for example, with respect to repairing electronics that use lithium-ion batteries, like phones and many other devices do. But Proctor argues that making repair information available is the very precaution that companies should be taking to ensure that our stuff and their parts, be they batteries or otherwise, are being handled safely.
“We’re asking for schematics, technical repair information, and OEM parts,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be safer if people fixing our phones and other electronics with lithium-ion batteries had the original manufacturer battery and proper instructions? If you were really worried about safety, you would make the proper safety information available.”
Apple is among those attempting to thwart right-to-repair bills. Remarkably, an internal document obtained by Motherboard appears to indicate that in spite of the company’s own lobbying rhetoric, Apple may already be able to offer the diagnostic software, training, and parts that would basically fall in line with what right-to-repair legislation might mandate. And yet, confusingly, it’s still fought this legislation.
This disconnect seems to be at the very center of the issue with many arguments made by parties opposed to repair rights. According to Proctor, “manufacturers and the opposition rely on people not understanding how repair actually works.”
The good news for consumers is that the right to repair movement is no longer an issue that companies can willfully ignore while overcharging their consumers. People are done being overcharged to repair their stuff, and politicians are listening. In addition to the states that introduced legislation this year, the conversation around the movement is now on the national political stage thanks to the endorsements from Senators Warren and Sanders.
In March, Senator Warren, touching on her proposal for a national right-to-repair law that would protect farmers from repair monopolies on necessary equipment for the agriculture and farming sector, noted that manufacturers have been able to boost costs to farmers by incorporating “diagnostic software into the equipment that prevents repairs without a code from an authorized agent.”
“Farmers should be able to repair their own equipment or choose between multiple repair shops,” she continued. “That’s why I strongly support a national right-to-repair law that empowers farmers to repair their equipment without going to an authorized agent. The national right-to-repair law should require manufacturers of farm equipment to make diagnostic tools, manuals, and other repair-related resources available to any individual or business, not just their own dealerships and authorized agents.”
At present, Warren’s proposed national right-to-repair law would apparently apply exclusively to farm equipment. But some think this could be a foundational building block toward broader policy reform. Gordon-Byrne says national right-to-repair legislation for tractors, for example, would lay the framework for application for consumer electronics as well, in large part because the electronic guts of a tractor are not too different from other electronics. Basically, whether it’s a computer in your car or in your fridge or in your phone, she says, “it’s still a computer.”
However, even if a national right-to-repair law—whatever its form—doesn’t come to pass, Gordon-Byrne seems hopeful that forthcoming state-level right-to-repair laws are “pretty well inevitable,” perhaps even this year. Ultimately, she says, it’ll boil down to whichever state is “the bravest of them all.”
Proctor notes that it’s also about the people who are being hit by a lack of right-to-repair protections the most: us, the consumers. That’s especially true as corporate lobbying attempts to topple right-to-repair legislation, as Washington state Representative Jeff Morris alleges Microsoft did this year.
“To me, the question is will there be enough public engagement and enough people speaking up to try to counter that influence. A consumer calling their legislator and telling them to vote for the bill is definitely worth 10 visits from the corporate lobbyist. It’s a more important thing that happens, especially in state government,” Proctor says. “I would just warn anybody, if you’re worried about this, you have to speak up because your state lawmaker—the person representing you and your few hundred or few thousand neighbors—has definitely heard from the companies that make this stuff.”