Imagine spending over a thousand dollars on a laptop only a few years ago, and it now barely holds a charge. You’re connected to an outlet without a new battery, which is both inconvenient and hardly the idea of a laptop. But it turns out that replacing the battery is difficult, so you’re obliged to spend another $1,000 on a new laptop, even though your old one is still perfectly functional. Whether you’re using a laptop, a phone, or a car, this is a near-universal experience.
A growing right-to-repair movement has been lobbying for legislation that demands access to repair equipment as devices become increasingly difficult to repair. President Joe Biden signed an executive order last week directing the Federal Trade Commission to make third-party cell phone repair or computer repair more accessible, but that’s only one aspect of the problem. Let’s take a look at what all of this means and why it matters.
The “right to repair” concept is simple: if you own something, you should be able to repair it yourself or take it to a professional of your choosing. When it comes to older cars and appliances, people are acclimated to this concept, but right-to-repair activists claim that current technology, particularly anything with a computer chip inside, is rarely repairable.
Americans are generally able to repair whatever they buy legally (those warranty-voiding signs you’ve surely seen on devices are largely fraudulent under the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act), but in practise, they are frequently refused the information or materials needed to do so. The right-to-repair movement is a good example of this. The Repair Association, a proponent of the right to repair, has a number of policy goals, some of which can be addressed by legislation and others that need a shift in buyer expectations. These are the goals:
Manuals, schematics, and software upgrades should all be accessible to the general public. Software licences should not restrict support options and should clearly state what is included in the purchase price.
Third parties, including individuals, should have access to parts and tools for servicing devices, including diagnostic equipment.
The government should make it permissible to unlock, adapt, or modify a gadget in order for the owner to install custom software.
Devices should be designed in such a way that they can be repaired.
Most right-to-repair legislative proposals incorporate the first two bullet points. The laws become murky when it comes to software licencing, but for the time being, an exemption in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it lawful to “jailbreak” gadgets like phones, speakers, appliances, and virtually anything else. This exemption permits a gadget to run modified software, potentially extending its life or functioning if the maker abandons it. However, just because such modifications are permissible doesn’t imply they’re legal, and manufacturers regularly provide upgrades that make jailbreaking more difficult.
The final key concept, building with repairability in mind, is more about adjusting expectations than creating regulations. Although currently proposed right-to-repair laws focus on the first two aims, Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the The Repair Association, points out that “there’s definitely a lot more work that has to be done to ensure that we stop manufacturing things that can’t be mended.”
The executive order covers a wide range of consumer safeguards, including those connected to airlines and broadband, but it only addresses one aspect of the right-to-repair goal: independent and DIY repairs. It encourages the FTC to limit powerful equipment manufacturers’ ability to restrict people’s ability to use independent repair shops or undertake DIY repairs such as when tractor firms stop farmers from repairing their own tractors,” according to an information sheet accompanying the ruling. The FTC’s interpretation of this directive is unknown, but on July 21, the commission will vote on whether to issue a new policy statement, which, if approved, will provide a clearer picture of the scope of the agency’s rules.