The Right to Repair Movements Pick Up Steam

After the Coronavirus pandemic placed more importance on our devices and ravaged the semiconductor industry, ‘right to repair’ movements are now becoming more prominent, but not without some pushback.


Insung Yoon / Unsplash

Tasks like replacing the battery in an iPhone have grown more and more difficult over the years, due to opposition from tech companies.

How many times have you broken one of your tech devices this past year? 

Normally, people replace their phones every 1 to 2 years. However, with the Coronavirus pandemic causing more focus to be put on remote work, support for the “right to repair” movement has been growing. 

But what even is the right to repair? As Linus Sebastian, host of the prominent YouTube technology channel Linus Tech Tips, defines it, right to repair is “the right to access OEM components and resources to make repairs to consumers’ devices when required.” In other words, right to repair advocates want companies to be required to make their parts and repair information available to the public. That way, you or an independent repair shop unaffiliated with the company would be able to repair your device.

One of the main arguments of right to repair advocates is that being able to repair devices allows for less electronic waste. As repairs become easier, more people will choose to repair their own devices instead of buying a brand new device when one part is broken. This in turn reduces the amount of wasted natural resources and energy that goes into making these devices. Repair advocates argue this bypasses companies’ strategies of planned obsolescence, or intentionally designing products that do not last long, in order to encourage people to buy new devices more often. Apple is one of the most prominently sued manufacturers regarding this, settling last year for $113 million in a California court for the incident most commonly known as Batterygate

Right to repair is not an entirely new concept – it already exists in the automotive industry. It is what allows us to go to any repair shop to get our cars fixed, instead of having to go to the dealership or the manufacturer’s repair centers. Massachusetts passed the first automotive right to repair bill in 2012, and manufacturers agreed in 2014 to make this law the national standard. Advocates of the right to repair are seeking to now pass laws that apply to the tech industry.

When asked about their stance on the right to repair, Zawad Munshi ’21 said, “I do support it because I’ve been repairing devices for years, and I value the idea of getting old broken tech fully working again. It also supports the environment, because it helps keep old tech out of landfills and allows people to reuse their technology.”

The Coronavirus pandemic has placed a new focus on right to repair movements. Many industries have shifted to remote work, placing more importance on having working tech at home to be able to sustain your livelihood. And with the pandemic, being able to repair your devices at home would help prevent going outside for avoidable reasons. If you are not technically inclined, being able to go to any local repair shop to get your device repaired instead of having to go to the manufacturer’s store or mail your device in would save both time and money. 

In addition to this, the Coronavirus pandemic has also deprived the tech industry of a key component — semiconductors. As detailed in a Bloomberg article, the supply of semiconductors, chips that are crucial to numerous products, from cars to iPhones, has been severely impacted by the supply chain impacts of COVID-19. With high demand across many products and the complexity of producing semiconductors, it has made the production of new devices much more difficult. With the right to repair, you would be able to repair devices with old parts that are readily available, something especially important for biomedical engineers. Biomedical engineers faced massive equipment shortages during the pandemic, such as shortages with ventilators, and they were not able to repair their existing equipment. Right to repair legislation would allow them to have access to repair manuals and parts so that they could repair critical equipment and be prepared for another pandemic.

Even our military would benefit from right to repair legislation. In an opinion piece from The New York Times, Captain Elle Ekman describes how Marines have access to cutting-edge tools, but cannot perform repairs to maintain the equipment they have, even in the field. “Ultimately, the power dynamics shifted between the Defense Department and commercial industry, forcing the department to accept warranties, contracts or prices that it could previously avoid — all thanks to changes in research and development funding, regulations and a lack of competition,” Ekman noted. 

Companies, however, have vehemently opposed right to repair legislation, spending millions of dollars on advertising and lobbying. Right to repair legislation threatens their bottom line; independent repair shops having access to original parts would lower costs of repairs, causing manufacturers to no longer be able to charge as much to perform repairs. 

One of the main arguments that companies employ against the right to repair is that unauthorized repairs can wreak havoc on devices and can become a safety risk. A botched battery installation, for example, could cause a phone to potentially explode. In an Apple press release from 2019, Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer, claimed that, “We believe the safest and most reliable repair is one handled by a trained technician using genuine parts that have been properly engineered and rigorously tested.”

Right to repair advocates refute these claims as being outlandish and as mere scare tactics. If right to repair legislation is enacted, third-party repairs would actually be more safe — independent repair shops would be able to more easily use genuine parts, instead of having to source them from disreputable sources. They would also have access to repair manuals so that they can properly repair devices, instead of having to rely on their own reverse engineering and experimentation.

Another common argument that companies use is trust. Companies claim that you cannot trust independent repair shops with your data, but you can trust authorized repair shops. However, recent news disproves this claim: in 2016, Apple paid millions of dollars in a settlement after technicians from an Apple-authorized contractor accessed and uploaded a customer’s private data to Facebook, in a report from The Telegraph.

Recently, right to repair advocates have gained an ally: the Federal Trade Commission. After being tasked with submitting a report to Congress on repair restrictions in December 2020, the FTC has finished and publicly released their report, titled “Nixing the Fix: An FTC Report to Congress on Repair Restrictions.” In the report, the FTC notes that repair restrictions have a negative impact on consumers, and that consumers and independent repair shops that are owned by people of color may be disproportionately affected. The FTC also rebuts companies’ claims, by stating, “Although manufacturers have offered numerous explanations for their repair restrictions, the majority are not supported by the record.”

Repair advocates have celebrated the report. Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, a repair company, said, “The bi-partisan report shows that FTC knows that the market has not regulated itself, and is committing to real action.”

So with this new support, what have right to repair advocates been doing? Louis Rossmann, owner of Rossmann Repair Group, a repair shop in Chelsea, started a GoFundMe fundraiser to raise money for a direct ballot initiative to bypass politicians. Although he fell short of his goal by a significant amount, the amount raised was significant, and prominent YouTubers such as Sebastian and Marques Brownlee made videos to shed more light on the issue. Rossmann is now pursuing a strategy of traveling across the country to lobby state legislatures and he has been making videos to get supporters to contact their local representatives.

This strategy is working. On June 10th, 2021, the New York State Senate passed bill S4104 – the Digital Fair Repair Act. With over 75% voting in favor, it is the first legislature in the country to pass right to repair legislation. However, it did not pass the Assembly before the legislative session ended the next day, so it will have to be revisited in 2022’s legislative session. Still, right to repair advocates are celebrating the win.

Right to repair advocates hope that other legislatures will follow in New York’s footsteps.

When asked about their stance on the right to repair, Zawad Munshi ’21 said, “I do support it because I’ve been repairing devices for years, and I value the idea of getting old broken tech fully working again. It also supports the environment, because it helps keep old tech out of landfills and allows people to reuse their technology.”