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It’s called The Right To Repair Act. Look it up

By Yair Oded

Oct 19, 2018

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While you’ve been busy following the latest on Brexit and the shenanigans of American politicians, you may have missed the news about a legal initiative that has been advancing across the United States which, if eventually passed, would alleviate the financial stress of those seeking to fix their messed-up electronic devices. Titled The Right to Repair Act, the initiative has thus far been introduced in seventeen different state legislatures and seeks to reduce repair costs by forcing manufacturers to provide manuals and spare parts to third party repair businesses. Naturally, large-scale manufacturers are unhappy about such legislation and lobby against it, with Apple spearheading the attempt to kill the bill. As owners of expensive electronic devices, we ought to acquaint ourselves with the details of the Right to Repair Act as well and understand what truly lies behind the tech giants’ campaign to thwart it.

Earlier this month, CBS reporters set out to investigate the unscrupulous practices of Apple’s repair services (AKA the Genius Bar, AKA where I have nervous breakdowns), and explore the agenda of the Right to Repair movement. As an undercover CBS reporter takes his malfunctioning Macbook to a Genius Bar in Toronto, the Genius tells him that fixing the screen would total at roughly $1,200 (Canadian, but still) and advises him that he may as well purchase a new computer as the cost would end up being similar. The reporter then takes the same laptop to Louis Rossmann, an owner of a small repair shop in Manhattan and a member of the Right to Repair movement. Upon examining the computer, Louis takes several minutes to fix the damaged screen and tells the reporter he would not charge more than $100 for such a repair job and concedes that given the simplicity of the case, he may have not charged him at all. It seems, then, that by overestimating repair costs, tech giants cajole us into purchasing new devices while our old ones are still perfectly functional.

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The CBS reporter’s next stop was at the headquarters of IFIXIT, North America’s third largest third party repair business located in Southern California. The company checks broken devices, diagnoses recurring problems and develops methods to fix them. They sell their repair tools and manuals online. The company’s owner, Kyle Wiens (who’s also a leading spokesman for the Right to Repair movement), explains that the movement’s main goal is to take some of the control over products from the manufacturers and put it in the hands of the owner. “For manufacturers to say ‘we’re making a product … and we’re going to control every aspect of it that happens after the fact’ is complete lunacy”, says Wiens. As an example of how Apple retains complete control over its products, Wiens reveals the company’s recent ‘trick’ of inserting fake-home-button detectors, which make the iPhone shut down the minute it recognises a ‘non-authorised’ home button that wasn’t manufactured by Apple. “It would be as if you’re driving in your car and had changed one of the tiers and all of a sudden Tesla pushes out a software update and your car stops driving, because of the ‘off the market’ tiers”, Wiens adds.

It appears that one of the main impediments to the Right to Repair Act is an intellectual property law which prohibits third party businesses from importing repair parts or publishing schematics and manuals created by a manufacturer. Both Rossmann and IFIXIT have faced recurring threats by Apple for sharing schematics and manuals online, saying they will be sued for $150,000 per copyrights violation. Yet, despite the vehement opposition of tech giants and the laws they rely on to buttress their onslaught on the Right to Repair Act, the movement appears to be gaining steam across the country, as more and more legislatures schedule discussions on the matter. “The moment one state passes [the Right to Repair Act]… the dam is going to burst,” says Wiens, “Because manufacturers aren’t going to provide products differently in one jurisdiction. They want to simplify their operations.”

The Right to Repair Act is certainly good news for us consumers, and could potentially take some of the power away from tech companies and hand it back to us. That being said, perhaps it isn’t enough to leave it up to legislatures and die hards such as Rossmann to alter the consumer-conglomerate dynamics for us. Perhaps an important part of the solution would be to educate people more thoroughly about the inner-workings of our precious devices. Like math, English, and science, basic knowledge of device operation has become a must in one’s skills set. After all, a well-informed society would be harder to ‘fool’ and more likely to demand reasonable and fair treatment by tech giants and manufacturers.