Apr 19, 2021

The right to fix your own stuff is finally having a moment in state legislatures

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Right-to-repair laws would allow third-party servicers to repair your phone and appliances. But there's stiff resistance.

About half of U.S. states are considering right-to-repair bills. They would require manufacturers to publish manuals so that anyone can make repairs on electronics and appliances — everything from iPhones to tractors to ventilators. Some of the bills focus on just one of those categories. In Arkansas, it’s farm equipment; in Oregon, it’s consumer electronic; in California, it’s medical equipment.

And in France, a new law just went into effect requiring makers of some gadgets to put a “repairability” score on the label. I spoke with Kyle Wiens, CEO of repair site iFixit. He said there may be momentum, but there’s also a lot of resistance. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

A photo of Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, a company that creates repair guides for electronics and sells replacement computer parts.
Kyle Wiens (Photo courtesy of iFixit)

Kyle Wiens: This is a huge uphill battle. There is $7.5 trillion in market cap registered to lobby against the right-to-repair bills. Apple really doesn’t want this legislation to happen because they’ve got us on a treadmill where we’re buying new iPhones every two years. They like that a lot. If you could swap your own battery, maybe you hang on to your phone for three or four years. We’ve seen concerted lobbying attention. But the thing about this issue is I like to say, all humans are in favor of the right to repair. This is a bipartisan issue. We’ve got very conservative legislators in Nebraska proposing this. We’ve got very local folks in Massachusetts working on it. This is a bipartisan issue. And it’s really a question of the rest of us against a few concentrated monopolies.

Molly Wood: One of the arguments from manufacturers has been that publishing these guides for anyone to see would reveal their trade secrets. Is there any truth to that?

Wiens: There is no truth to that. It’s interesting, France just rolled out a repairability scorecard. Right next to the price at retail, they’ll show how easy or hard it is to fix a product. And Samsung, in order to score better on that, released all their service manuals. I mean, it’s not hurting them in competition, it’s not giving Apple a leg up on Samsung. It is simply the information that you need to fix the thing. It has nothing to do with trade secrets.

Wood: Has this been helped along at all by the pandemic, the fact that we’re at home, more reliant on devices, there are various shortages in consumer electronics — of course, a global chip shortage too, which makes it harder to repair your PC. But I just wonder if in some ways, it’s also a perfect storm of reliance and a need to repair at this moment in time?

Wiens: Absolutely. We have seen traffic to iFixit absolutely skyrocket during the pandemic. More people are at home, we’re fixing our things. If you want to go buy a computer with a webcam, it’s actually hard. So it’s a lot better to fix the things that we’ve got. At the start of the pandemic, everyone pulled out their old laptop, fixed it up and gave it to their kids. And so we’re definitely seeing a lot of that. Hospitals are paying more attention to the equipment that they have. They’re a little bit more resistant to bring in third-party servicers because they want to protect their workers. So yes, I think this is the right moment, this is the right time and this is the right fix to a big problem.

Wood: Massachusetts passed a repair law late last year just for cars. Do you have a sense yet of how that’s working on the ground?

Wiens: So Massachusetts passed an automotive right-to-repair bill — it was actually on the ballot this last fall. And this is very exciting, because it will expand the right-to-repair existing laws to cover wireless communications that cars have. The current state of that law is that the manufacturers have sued the state of Massachusetts to delay implementation, and the federal court is going to be hearing that suit in the coming months.

Wood: Do you think that’s a likely outcome, even in states that do manage to get this passed — that it’ll be a long time before they actually go into effect?

Wiens: I’m certainly hopeful that this could go into effect quickly. We’ve seen France’s law that went into effect Jan. 1, and it’s really starting to change manufacturer behavior. And companies like Samsung are increasing access to parts and manuals. So we’re optimistic, but there certainly is the possibility of a court challenge to slow things down.

Wood: That’s so interesting that Europe, just like with privacy, in some cases, and data protection, may end up leading the way here, and frankly, creating a framework that would make it easier for companies to behave that way here, too.

Wiens: Absolutely. And we have heard from manufacturers in the U.S. that they’re paying attention to the French law, and they want to design their products to score better. Because if you think about it, if you’re looking at two smartphones on the shelf, and they seem kind of similar, and one has a repair score of eight and the others got a big red label that says it’s a three and it’s going to be hard to fix, well, why not get the the easier-to-fix, longer-lasting phone?

Wood: Do any of the state laws that you know of include that kind of a rating system?

Wiens: No. The current U.S. bills are focused on enabling access to information, parts and software. So they’re just about making it possible to fix things. They don’t dive into the level of detail and granularity. The French system will give you more points if the battery isn’t glued into the phone, which is really cool. The U.S. framework is not getting into the design of the product at all.

Wood: But we could, like you suggest, we could totally just start looking that up in theory? Like, here in the U.S., you could be looking at two phones and you could type it in somewhere?

Wiens: Yes, and actually if you use a VPN and set your location to France, and then you go to buy an iPhone on Apple’s website, it will show you the repair score.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

We reached out to Apple but didn’t hear back as of press time.

Here is some background reading on that French law, which is making waves all over the place. IFixit broke down Apple’s scores specifically, because the manufacturer is notorious for, over the years, creating devices that are ever more difficult to take apart, even to the point of using basically proprietary screws that only technicians can access. On a 10-point scale, with 10 the most repairable, Apple gave itself scores ranging from 4.5 on the iPhone 11, 6.5 for the new MacBook Air and 6 for the iPhone 12 line. If you want to look up other devices, here’s an index of scores for various smartphones. It’s mostly in French, but at least you don’t need a VPN.

And, of course, in addition to restrictive repair rules being expensive, unnecessary and, in the cases of the California ventilators during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, potentially life threatening, they lead to an incredible amount of waste as people end up throwing away electronics, vacuum cleaners or coffee makers instead of fixing them. The environmental impact is a big part of the French push for right-to-repair, and a similar sentiment across the European Union.

There’s a story reminding us that fully three years ago tractor maker John Deere and other farm equipment makers promised to make manuals and tools and diagnostics available to the masses. That was part of an agreement that kept several states from passing legislation to force them to. They said they’d do that by 2021, and here we are almost halfway through 2021 and Vice reports the flood of repair help is less than a drip.

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