Why can't we fix our own gadgets or get them repaired where we want?

We look at the Right to Repair movement, which is fighting environmental and economic battles with the world’s tech giants

Broken phones. Getty Images
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More than 70 years ago, during a period of extended wartime austerity, the British Ministry of Information coined the phrase "Make Do and Mend" to encourage people to repair their possessions rather than buy new ones. These days, the idea of citizens being discouraged from spending money seems unthinkable, and as a consequence, we have ended up with the opposite problem: a repair process that is so arduous and expensive that most people don't even bother. The desire to fix things – particularly electronics – presents a series of challenges beyond the merely diagnostic: an absence of service manuals, impregnable cases and a lack of spare parts gives the distinct impression that opening a gadget is almost an act of disobedience. Indeed, it is now being argued that the repair business has become monopolised by manufacturers for their own benefit – and needs to change.

At the end of last week, American state Washington proposed legislation to stop companies manufacturing electronic products that "prevent reasonable diagnostic or repair" by third parties. It is the latest bill introduced in the United States that seeks to restore the "right to repair" and remove related obstacles, such as the secure gluing of components, inflating the cost of spare parts and advising customers to upgrade instead. These bills are in response to a number of public outcries, perhaps most notably in 2016, when iPhones with a home button that had been replaced by third parties were rendered inoperable by a system software update. Apple would later issue a fix and an apology, but it added to a sense that there is an industry-wide policy of "if it's broke, don't fix it".

It is an easy conclusion to draw. In relation to the number of computers, tablets and phones in use worldwide, the number of officially authorised repair centres is curiously small, and these businesses tend to be located in large urban centres that millions of people live nowhere near. Those attempting repairs themselves might discover that their products’ cases are held together with unturnable screws, eg the “pentalobes” used in certain models of MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and iPhones. Charges for repairs are frequently excessive for the amount of work involved, and while third-party repairs may be cheaper, those businesses are often denied access to the necessary parts. In addition, as per the iPhone example above, software has begun to disable certain features when third-party repairs are detected. While Apple is the company most frequently criticised for all this, it is by no means the only culprit; devices such as the HTC One, Google Nexus and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge have been given particularly low “repairibility” scores by the website iFixit, which is dedicated to assisting people who want to repair stuff themselves. It is also one of the leading lights of the Right to Repair movement. “You bought it,” runs one of their slogans. “You own it.”

The issue of ownership, however, has become foggier as software becomes more integral to the way our gadgets work. In their 2016 book The End Of Ownership, university professors Jason Schultz and Aaron Perzanowski outline the way that software "controls how we use the things we buy… the agreements that accompany these products typically insist that buyers are merely licensed to use them and expressly prohibit modification and even repair". Gadgets such as the Amazon Echo are cheap because their value lies in the services they provide; if we were permitted to tinker with them, we might break the locks that preserve their profitability. The side effect of this, whether intentional or not, is to stop us even trying to mend broken gadgets. The Right to Repair lobby is now pushing for laws to put service manuals into the public domain.

Another side effect of this smokescreen is environmental, as we consume, discard and replace. Aside from the mining for materials to make new gadgets, there is the accumulation of garbage; the UN estimates that up to 50 million tonnes of electronic waste was dumped last year, an increase of 20 per cent from two years earlier.

While companies such as Apple and Hewlett-Packard have departments dedicated to minimising environmental impacts, Right to Repair campaigners think they are toothless. "The environment team is getting overruled," iFixit's chief executive Kyle Wiens told The Verge website last summer. "Practically, the company is telling the environment team: 'Make sure we're not getting constrained in any way.' Now you've got the fox guarding the hen house."

It would be untrue to say that technology companies are doing nothing in response. Last summer, Apple agreed to provide a number of third-party service centres with proprietary screen-repair machines, and it continues to work on a “modular” Mac Pro that is more easily upgradeable, as well as improving recycling schemes. But the argument generally presented by the industry is that denying us the ability to repair is for our own good – it is to stop damage being done by unqualified service centres, to prevent injury and to combat security threats.

Supporters of this view also argue that if we want our gadgets to become ever smaller, slimmer and seamlessly integrated with our lives, an inability to get under the bonnet is simply the price we pay. There is little doubt, however, that this walled garden has boosted company profits. It has also effected a profound cultural shift in the way we consume goods. Or, as Wiens puts it: "A transition in society, to a world where we don't understand what's in our things." It is a very human impulse to wonder how things work, and denying people the ability to tinker not only challenges their curiosity, but also puts a brake on innovation as curious minds find themselves confronted with "keep out" signs.

Politicians of all stripes seem energised by the Right to Repair cause: the left see it as a challenge to corporate might; the right is horrified that individual citizens are being told what they can and can't do. Lawmakers are speaking up; companies are fighting back. The battle will be a long one.


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