Tech Firms Push Back as ‘Right to Repair’ Gains Momentum

As “right to repair” laws gain traction in states including New York, which passed legislation last year, tech firms are girding to battle back against consumer rights to buy parts and access information about how to implement DIY fixes. Forced obsolescence being part of virtually every hardware manufacturer’s business plan, the rapid pace of device disposal and replacement has proven taxing on the environment, as well as costly for consumers. Some companies are said to design software that performs inadequately with replacement parts, or update software to intentionally degrade product performance with age.

“Since the first electronic consumer goods emerged in the 1950s, buyers have tried to keep them going by repairing or replacing broken parts. Today, it’s clear that many products are designed to be unfixable,” Bloomberg writes. Consumer advocacy groups have been harshly critical of the trend, targeting Apple and others.

Apple has consistently maintained that replacement parts can impair performance and cause safety issues. In 2019, it launched a third-party repair program and trained 265,000 technicians. In 2021, the company announced parts availability for iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 display, battery and camera repairs, but the cost of buying parts and “the tools Apple rents to customers can be so expensive that it’s still cheaper to replace the phone,” says Bloomberg.

While high-end electronics have gotten most of the right to repair publicity, the movement encompasses things like John Deere farm equipment and dishwashers. “Discarded electronics generated an estimated 53.6 million tons of waste in 2019, and only 17 percent of that was properly recycled,” notes Bloomberg, explaining “the trash contains heavy metals and compounds including arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium.”

Mining those substances for new products also puts a strain on the environment, emitting greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Some estimates indicate producing one smartphone emits as much as the equivalent of the carbon dioxide from a car driving 200 miles.

Companies including Google, Apple, Microsoft and Tesla are expending large sums on lobbyists “to make a case that right to repair laws would expose industry secrets, give third parties access to sensitive information,” as well as expose consumers to danger, including hacking, Bloomberg writes.

But the right to repair movement has achieved momentum. In recent weeks, “at least 14 state houses have introduced new bills so far, Nathan Proctor, right to repair campaign director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, tells Axios.”

“If you’re looking at what one of these companies really fears, I don’t think it’s a bill in Congress as much as 22 different bills in states that are all slightly different,” Proctor told Axios. Harvard Business Review notes that in 2021 President Biden signed an executive order “directing the FTC to draft new right to repair regulations,” adding that “in Europe, manufacturers are legally required to supply spare parts for up to 10 years.”

Why Does Big Tech Make It So Hard to Fix Your Devices?, The New York Times, 1/12/23

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