Editor’s Note: Nathan Proctor is director of the Right to Repair Campaign for US PIRG, an advocacy organization. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
I’m not great with cars, but I can change the oil.
Pop the hood, and you see parts clustered together. The engine compartment is complex, but still possible to make sense of. A normal person, with a little help, can do basic repairs and maintenance to keep a vehicle on the road. And there’s always a mechanic no more than a handful of miles away who can do everything else.
You certainly wouldn’t throw the car away if all it needed was a new battery.
Though you’ve probably never done it, popping the back of your iPhone is not much different than popping the hood. Lots of parts, but you can figure out what does what.
But popping your phone open requires a bizarre star-shaped screwdriver, and other tools you won’t find in the tool box. Once you open it, you will find the battery stuck to the casing with adhesive tape, which is tricky to remove. All of this might convince you to take your phone to a repair shop if you crack your screen or need a new battery, even though those repairs should be basic maintenance, like replacing worn tires.
But it turns out that Apple won’t sell you or an independent repair shop its custom tools, the original replacement parts, or the diagnostic software used in an Apple Store or authorized service providers.
Many people discovered this themselves during the most recent #ThrottleGate, when Apple used a software update to slow down phones with older batteries to reduce the load on those batteries.
After some public blowback, Apple offered a reduced price to replace those older batteries. But the demand was high, and soon, long waitlists formed. Some customers faced an additional obstacle: they live hours away from the nearest Apple store.
Those circumstances led many iPhone owners to look for online solutions. The leading self-repair online resource, iFixIt.com, reports that more than 500,000 people accessed their guide on how to replace an iPhone battery after news of #ThrottleGate hit. That’s when many people first learned about the steps electronics manufacturers intentionally take to make it harder to repair our stuff.
Legislatures in 17 states – from Hawaii to Kansas, Oklahoma to New York – are considering a solution to that problem, with broad bipartisan support. “Right to Repair” laws would require manufacturers to let us fix our stuff – and make them sell independent repair shops and consumers the tools and parts to do the job.
While phones may be the more recent headline-grabbing example, they’re far from the only impossible-to-repair products consumers have to contend with. One of the main constituencies fighting for Right to Repair reforms are farmers, as modern farm equipment often comes with proprietary software that doesn’t permit independent repair.
If something goes wrong with one of these new tractors, the farmer might need to take it to an authorized dealer or pay for an authorized service technician to come out to the farm. That takes time, which can be precious for certain crops, and often comes with a sizeable bill. That’s a tough pill to swallow for people accustomed to doing things for themselves.
But this is bigger than just a broken screen on a phone or a tractor on the fritz. We have a stuff problem.
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We use more than we need to, and more than we can sustain. Every year we consume 1.7 times what the earth can replenish, and 99% of the stuff in our consumption machine is thrown out within 6 months – everything we harvest, mine, process and transport. Americans throw out some 350,000 cell phones each day.
If we want to move to a more sustainable way of doing things, we need to find ways to repair, salvage and reuse more of our stuff. But we can’t do that if companies set up arbitrary barriers to repair. If we want to be more sustainable, companies need to stop blocking people from doing things for themselves.
Our economy is built on an ever-increasing need for more stuff, but that’s at odds with what’s good for people – our health, our environment, our local communities.
Right to Repair is just one commonsense, bipartisan step we can take to empower people to meet their own needs, to be more resilient and sustainable. It creates small business opportunities, and allows for more widespread knowledge of technology.
Ordinary people like me can learn how to repair a lot of things, but only if we have the tools and we choose to use them. The same is true with our laws. Let’s fix them.