Right to Repair legislation is increasingly gaining traction around the world, as customers demand the opportunity to make the most out of their electronic devices. But what is holding up the legal side of the battle? And what is being done in the meantime to extend the life of products?
As of 1st
July, new Right to Repair rules in the UK legally require manufacturers to provide spare parts to people buying electrical appliances and to third parties providing repair services.
Right to Repair refers to more than just the ability for consumers to have their products repaired, but also the freedom to use their repairer of choice, rather than being forced to rely on the device manufacturer’s services – something that some of the biggest providers have been fighting tooth and nail against for years.
But pressure is growing on manufacturers to allow consumers to repair devices on their own terms, while tackling the issue of “premature obsolescence” and extending the lifespan of products.
In March, the EU introduced measures
forcing manufacturers to provide spare parts for their products, and make them repairable with consumer tools. Though the UK has now left the EU, businesses will have to keep up with the new rules to continue trading on the continent.
However, while the European Commission’s plans cover smartphones, tablets and laptops, the UK’s rules exclude such devices, despite otherwise covering “televisions and other electronic displays.”
For now, the UK’s Right to Repair laws only cover: dishwashers and washing machines, fridges and freezers, and non-consumer equipment including lights, motors, and welding equipment, while cookers, hobs, tumble dryers and microwaves are exempt.
Industrial designer Brooks Stevens first proposed the concept
of planned obsolescence in 1954, as a method for “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”
The idea was not new, however; in the 1920s, a cartel of lightbulb manufacturers
– many of which, including General Electric, are still active today – successfully conspired to artificially limit the lifetime of their bulbs to 1,000 hours, with only the disruption brought on by the Second World War bringing this cartel to an end.
Over in the US, the cross-party commissioners of the Federal Trade Commission voted unanimously
last week to make it a priority to draft legislation permitting third-party repairs, following a directive by Joe Biden.
The Right to Repair movement in the US has found its most vocal champions in the farming community of all places – namely, those who’d fallen foul of manufacturer John Deere’s copyright-protected software
and expensive, company-approved technicians.
Many had resorted to using pirated software to circumvent the new generation of machinery’s complex software and restrictive policies on how repairs are carried out.
One of the worst offenders is Apple, who has often been accused of holding back efforts
to make devices easier to repair, despite company co-founder Steve Wozniak’s vocal support for the cause:
Back in 2017, they took on lawmakers in the US state of Nebraska pursuing a Right to Repair bill, with a spokesperson warning that the law would make the state a “mecca for bad actors” if it passed.
That year, the tech world was rocked by the news that Apple had been surreptitiously slowing down older models via software updates, ostensibly to keep these devices working – the opposite of planned obsolescence, some might argue, with a slower phone still preferable to one totally unable to run the latest OS.
However, by not informing customers of the action, or offering a means to replace the battery, this was judged to be deception, and was met with legal action. Lately, their AirPods have been met with the same criticism
Currently, iOS warns users if a non-Apple approved battery is being used in a device and, as of this year’s update, now features a similar warning for cameras
. In fact, only with Apple’s cloud-based System Configuration app can any repairs be made to the camera. Their position on the matter has softened since 2019, however, after they relaxed their policy of not repairing iPhones with third-party batteries
When lobbying fails to halt legislation, manufacturers simply make spare parts harder to come across. Apple has, since 2009, made use of Pentalobular security screws
in their devices, a rare, star-shaped screwhead that forced amateur engineers to reverse-engineer a means to unscrew them. Huawei has since introduced the screws in their phones too.
Apple has gone on the record that it makes a loss
on every repaired handset. Given the increases to its revenue by limiting who can repair devices, and by encouraging customers to simply purchase a new phone rather than repair their current one, unfortunately, opposition to Right to Repair makes sense for manufacturers.
Apple has further argued that unauthorised repairs are dangerous, with third parties potentially using low-quality parts, as evidenced by a handful of cases where iPhones have exploded after being in the hands of amateurs.
Unlicenced repairs could also lead to devices being compromised, personal information being divulged or unauthorised access to personal files – though representatives of service providers are themselves hardly innocent of this
But with billions of pounds worth of precious metals within phones thrown away each year rather than repurposed, device manufacturers must take a more lenient stance towards unauthorised repairs. According to the European Environmental Bureau, extending the life of all devices in the EU by one year would be the equivalent of reducing the emissions produced by two million cars
One organisation leading the charge in this culture shift is Repair Café
, an international organisation founded in the Netherlands, providing a social setting increasing access to third-party device repairs, including sharing repair knowledge and 3D-printing replacement parts. The Open Repair Alliance even marked the third Saturday of every October as International Repair Day.
Opening the doors to Right to Repair will grant consumers far more choice when it comes to their smartphone and tablets, ensuring their devices last longer, keeping prices low for those unwilling or unable to upgrade, and benefitting the environment.