A “right to repair” movement tools up

Article tiré du magazine The Economist.

If it’s broken, you can’t fix it

As devices go, smartphones and tractors are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. And an owner of a chain of mobile-device repair shops and a farmer of corn and soyabeans do not usually have much in common. But Jason DeWater and Guy Mills are upset for the same reason. “Even we can no longer fix the home button of an iPhone,” says Mr DeWater, a former musician who has turned his hobby of tinkering into a business based in Omaha, Nebraska. “If we had a problem with our John Deere, we could fix it ourselves. No longer,” explains Mr Mills whose farm in Ansley, a three-hour drive to the west, spreads over nearly 4,000 acres.

Messrs DeWater and Mills have more and more company. It includes not just fellow repairmen and farmers, but owners of all kinds of gear, including washing machines, coffee makers and even toys. All are becoming exceedingly difficult to fix—which has given rise to a movement fighting for a “right to repair”. In America the movement has already managed to get relevant bills on the agenda of legislatures in a dozen states, including Nebraska. Across the Atlantic, the European Parliament recently passed a motion calling for regulation to force manufacturers to make their products more easily repairable.

Some types of gear, such as photocopiers and medical equipment, have always been hard to mend because of their internal complexity. But what has been the exception is now becoming the rule, says Nabil Nasr of the Rochester Institute of Technology. Even a John Deere tractor comes with millions of lines of software code, controlling everything from the engine to the armrests. Mobile devices, for their part, are getting ever more densely packed to make them smaller and able to accommodate new components. When iFixit, a website for repair information, analysed Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8, which started shipping on September 15th, it found that the device was mainly held together with glue. This gets rid of fasteners, but makes repairs more difficult.

If it’s broken, you can’t fix it

Manufacturers are also increasingly erecting less tangible barriers to mending. Leased equipment and devices under warranty have always been out of bounds, but firms now regularly ban tinkering with a product’s software. In its “License Agreement for John Deere Embedded Software”, for instance, the company retains ownership of the software programs. It also refers to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a controversial piece of legislation that makes it illegal for customers to circumvent copy protection. But dodging it can be necessary to develop diagnostic tools for electronic devices.

Firms also withhold technical information, proprietary repair tools and spare parts. Mr DeWater has to rely on manuals from iFixit, on self-made tools and on refurbished or copied parts. He can also tap into a global network of repair shops which exchange information about how to fix the latest mobile devices. “We sometimes even ship a device to China if we know that a shop there can fix it,” he says.

In the future, repairability is likely to become even more of an issue, says Kyle Wiens, iFixit’s chief executive. Not only do firms want customers to use authorised dealers, but a growing number of products are also no longer stand-alone devices, but rather delivery vehicles for services that generate additional revenues. Smart speakers such as Amazon’s Echo are a case in point. The e-commerce giant may even lose money with the device, but it helps to sell other products and collects reams of data about users. These can be used for additional services or to target advertising.

Strings attached

Similarly, wearable technology such as fitness trackers would be much more expensive to consumers if manufacturers did not believe they could monetise the data they collect. If owners could easily tinker with such devices, that could sever the profitable links between product, service and data, which may make manufacturers’ guard them even more jealously.

In their defence, firms say that restricting repairs, whether by individual consumers or businesses, helps protect their intellectual property and works on behalf of buyers. Apple, for instance, wants to ensure that consumers do not get hurt by breaking glass from badly installed screens, for instance. If Apple alone can replace the home button, it is to stop hackers from getting familiar with the system that reads people’s fingerprints to unlock the phone. Highlighting the dangers, researchers in Israel recently managed to fit smartphones with booby-trapped screens, which could be used to log keyboard input and install malicious apps.

Yet the lack of repairability has large drawbacks. Authorised dealers are often far-flung, much more expensive than independent ones and often cannot fix a problem. Barring owners from tinkering also limits innovation. Many inventions in farming equipment, such as circular irrigation systems, were pioneered by farmers. And not being able to easily mend a device, says Mark Schaffer, a manufacturing consultant, contributes to a problem that already plagues many markets, as more products, from smartphones to washing machines, are thrown away rather than repaired, adding to waste and pollution. The share of new appliances sold to replace defective ones (as opposed to first-time purchases) in Germany increased from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2012, according to the Öko-Institut, a think-tank. Washing machines, in particular, are hard to fix. The most common problem is that their bearings fail; when these are sealed away in the drum, repairers cannot access them.

To reverse the trend, but also to defend its industry’s turf, the Repair Association, a lobby group funded by repair shops as well as by environmental organisations and other charities, wants states in America to pass “right to repair” laws. These would require firms in all industries to provide consumers and independent repair shops with the same service documentation, tools and spare parts that they make available to authorised service providers. The hope is that once an important state passes such a law, the country will follow—as was the case in the car industry after Massachusetts in 2012 passed a right-to-repair law for cars that led to a national memorandum of understanding between carmakers and repair shops.

If no bill has been passed yet, it is because the Repair Association has faced stiff resistance from manufacturers. Apple’s strategy here is two-pronged. It has sent a lobbyist to Nebraska, who reportedly warned local politicians that the legislation would make armies of hackers relocate to the state. At the same time, it has made (largely symbolic) concessions—in June it announced that it would send 400 screen-fixing machines to authorised repair shops, so they no longer have to send broken iPhones to central repair facilities. It is also investing in technology that makes it easier to recycle its products, such as Liam, a robot for disassembling iPhones.

Whether such moves will take some steam out of the right-to-repair movement remains to be seen. More likely, it will gather pace. In France, with its penchant for regulation, “planned obsolescence”, meaning designing a product for a limited lifespan, is already an offence punishable by up to €300,000 ($354,000) or up to 5% of the maker’s average annual French sales, whichever is higher. Manufacturers must also tell buyers how long their products are likely to last. The government hopes that both rules will push firms to make devices easier to repair.

Spanner in the works

The global assault on repairability highlights a bigger problem, says Jason Schultz of New York University: what it means to own things in the digital age. Together with Aaron Perzanowski of Case Western Reserve University, he has written a book, “The End of Ownership”, which describes the many ways in which firms now limit what people can do with the stuff they buy, in particularly the digital sort. “Owners” are often not allowed to resell it, transfer it to another devices or mash it up with other digital goods.

Companies have even started to limit what buyers can do with physical goods. Tesla, for example, does not allow its self-driving cars to be used to make money with ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft (apparently because the firm plans soon to launch its own such service, called “Tesla Network”). It will be interesting to see what happens if Tesla takes steps to enforce this anti-Uber rule.

At any rate, the watering down of ownership appears to hit a nerve both on the left and the right. “Repair isn’t a partisan issue,” says Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, pointing out that the right-to-repair bills have both Republican and Democrat sponsors in most states. The two Nebraskans, Messrs DeWater and Mr Wills, give an idea of why this may be. One, a liberal, sees the livelihood of repair shops endangered by big corporations. To the other, more conservative, not being able to repair his tractor amounts to an attack on the “very idea of private property”. Together they make a powerful coalition.

 

From the print edition