You own it. Why aren’t you allowed to fix it? – Tagline
It doesn’t have to be like that. Westend61/Getty Images
Well, your car’s headlight is burned out. I guess that means you have to throw the whole vehicle away and buy a new one.
As absurd as it sounds, that’s basically how we deal with many consumer electronics, many of which have been made as difficult to repair as possible – not necessarily for good reason, but to force consumers to continue to buy new products. If you’ve ever tried to fix an electronic device, you’ve probably come across one of those funky-shaped screws, or stubborn drops of glue holding broken parts in place. Or maybe, if you’re lucky enough to have a repair shop nearby, you took it to a store only to learn that it will cost more to repair than to replace. The result is that a lot of e-waste that could be salvaged ends up being thrown away.
House Bill 1212, sponsored by State Rep. Mia Gregerson, would fix that by forcing big tech companies like Samsung, Apple and Microsoft to make tools and tech specs available to anyone who wants to fix their own devices. The bill provides exemptions for trade secrets and security concerns, among other considerations.
So, ready to crack open that old phone with the cracked screen, the toaster with the buttons that only work if you hold it sideways, or your collection of controllers with the drifting sticks? Not so fast – tech companies cling to their pearls early on idea of you filthy commoners peeking inside their components.
The pandemic has made the need for this bill all the more clear, Gregerson told a hearing last week, because we’ve become so reliant on digital tools to stay connected. This is especially true for students in remote school districts who don’t have the money or expertise nearby to perform unnecessarily complex repairs. When a student’s laptop crashes, Gregerson said, “a day of learning is missing.”
Schools are expected to be significant beneficiaries of right to repair legislation, said North Shore educator Sandy Hayes, president of the Principals’ Association. “It will take us almost ten years before we have the funds to replace a current device,” she told lawmakers. If manufacturers stop hiding basic technical documents, it would help schools “reduce our costs by allowing districts and students to make minor repairs.”
These benefits would extend beyond just schools, of course. You bought the device, you own it, why shouldn’t you be allowed to repair it when it breaks down?
The right to repair has become something of an obsession for Kyle Wiens, founder and CEO of iFixit. His company provides step-by-step instructions for repairing devices of all shapes and sizes, and it all started with an old PowerBook G3, last made about 20 years ago.
“I didn’t need a piece, I just needed to open it up and the thing was really hard to open,” Wiens said. the stranger. He searched online for repair instructions and “I learned that Apple’s attorneys had sent DMCA takedown threats to anyone who posted the manual.”
This was the genesis of a company that provides repair instructions for a wide range of electronic devices and writes its own manuals when companies refuse to provide them. It has been an increasingly vital resource since the start of the pandemic.
“In this supply chain situation, good luck buying a game console,” Wiens said. “You better hold on to the things you have.”
But the manufacturers would prefer that you didn’t think in those terms. Last week’s hearing brought together various business groups from across the tech industry, all of whom disapproved of the prospect of citizen reparations.
David Edmonson is vice president of state policy and government relations at TechNet, an organization representing dozens of large companies: Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Google, Grubhub, General Motors, Lyft, Meta (aka Facebook), PayPal, Uber, Zoom and many more. He urged Washington lawmakers to reject the bill as written, saying the current situation is good: “Consumers currently have a variety of professional repair options,” he said. said, suggesting people can continue to use manufacturer-authorized repair options.
This may sound reasonable, but let me give you a little insight into these “authorized repair networks” because I was one of them.
Back in college, I worked at a camera chain that offered “authorized” repairs under warranty when you bought a camera. We all knew it was a scam: when some poor moron brought in his broken camera, we sent it in for repair, knowing that the repair would take weeks, if not months, at best! Sometimes it just got lost and the customer (if they remembered bringing their camera) had to fight tooth and nail to get it replaced. Other times the damage would conveniently turn out to be something not covered by warranty, in which case the customer would have to choose to pay out of pocket to send it back, broken; or pay through the nose for a repair that sometimes costs as much as a new camera. Sometimes they came back with new damage and the customers were too fed up to continue the process.
There were a handful of times I was able to save the client. They might just have needed to tighten one of those tiny, bezel-sized screws; or their battery contact just needed to be bent back into place with needle-nose pliers; or their dented lens just begging to be gently unscrewed with a strap wrench. Just like that, a months-long repair ordeal was solved in less than five minutes because I, a dumb student, just had basic tools and knowledge. I wish I could have made this for more people – or better yet, that they could have found the instructions to do it themselves at home.
But the industrialists would very much like things to remain as they are. “Consumers already have a wide range of secure repair options through their authorized repair network,” said Dustin Brighton, representing the Repair Done Right Coalition. Hey, who exactly is in this coalition? Hard to say! Brighton, who has worked with Microsoft and Ebay in the past, appears to be the only person to ever speak on behalf of the group. Could be a coalition of one for all we know. I contacted his consulting firm, Brightstone Bridge, but got no response.
Lisa McCabe, director of state legislative affairs for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, and George Kerchner, executive director of the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association, also opposed the bill. Kerchner has warned that batteries are too dangerous for the average person to replace – but the Federal Trade Commission disagree in a 2019 report which found “little evidence to support…the manufacturers’ explanation of repair restrictions”.
Batteries can indeed be dangerous—I’ve been capacitor-zapped several times while tinkering with disposable cameras, not to mention the potential for battery explosion—but the FTC report noted that “manufacturers may choose to make products safer to repair when reviewing a product’s design,” and called “manufacturer practice that increases the safety risks of independent repair,” such as not labeling batteries.
This is a problem that has been solved in other industries. For example, I was able to safely replace the battery in my Prius a few years ago, saving me a few hundred dollars in repair costs. I am by no stretch of the imagination a car person! But this repair was about as easy to do as building an Ikea desk, and I could drop off the old, used battery at an auto shop. If it is possible to swap giant car batteries safely, it is possible to do so with cell phones.
When you lower the bill, Nicole Walter of Washington’s Public Interest Research Group testified, “the right to repair is a matter of choice.”
And Patrick Connor of the Washington State Small Business Owners Association – whose members include local repair shops – said their members support the legislation by a margin of more than three to one.
“I would say I’m pretty optimistic,” Wiens says when asked about the chances of HB 1212 passing this year. Although similar bills have been proposed in other states, he says, “Washington is in the lead right now. … People should call their representatives and tell them to support him.”