A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 8, 2019

The Right To Repair: How Come People Should Be Able To Fix Their iPhone - or Tractor

Aside from the moral argument about fairness, the financial constraints of having to continually buy new equipment due to the high cost of authorized repair rather than finding a less expensive means of doing so might just stimulate the economy. JL

The New York Times comments:

John Deere and Apple, and their peers, use aggressive tactics, including electronic locks and warranties, to push customers to seek help from authorized repair facilities or buy a replacement. Customers who used independent auto repair shops spent 24% less on repairs. Apple charges $279 to fix the screen of an iPhone X, while a repair store quoted a price of $219. This is unfair to consumers who might be able to obtain, or perform, lower-priced repairs, to independent businesses who might do the work. And it’s bad for the environment, because the high cost of repairs leads people to toss devices that might have been fixed.
A giant John Deere tractor and a pocket-size Apple iPhone have something important in common: The cost of repairing either one is too high.
The two companies, and many of their peers, use a variety of aggressive tactics, including electronic locks and restrictive warranties, to push customers with broken equipment to seek help from their authorized repair facilities — or to give up and buy a replacement.
This is unfair to consumers who might be able to obtain, or perform, lower-priced repairs. It’s unfair to independent businesses that might do the work. And it’s bad for the environment, because the high cost of repairs leads people to toss devices that might have been fixed.
Late last month, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, proposed a national right-to-repair law for farm equipment. The idea is based on a 2012 Massachusetts law that requires carmakers to provide the information necessary to perform repairs and to sell any special tools needed to do the work. The law also phased in a requirement that new cars be compatible with generic diagnostic tools.
Ms. Warren has the right idea, but she did not go far enough. The owners of consumer electronic products deserve the same protection as farmers.
The potential savings are considerable. A 2011 study found that customers who used independent auto repair shops spent about 24 percent less on repairs each year. Similarly, Apple charges $279 to fix the screen of an iPhone X, while a repair store in downtown Washington, D.C., quoted a price of $219 — although the lack of Apple support makes such repairs riskier.
“Right-to-repair” is a bit of a misnomer. The owner of a device generally has the legal right to repair it. The issue is whether the manufacturer allows people and independent businesses to obtain the necessary information, tools and parts to do the repairs.
Until recently, cars, tractors and even most consumer electronic products were relatively easy to fix, without any help or permission from the manufacturer. Parents taught their children to make basic auto repairs; teenagers built their own computers.
The growing complexity of electronic devices, however, means that people need help from manufacturers. And companies have taken advantage of that shift in power.
Some obstacles are passive. Companies can impede people from repairing modern electronic devices simply by declining to publish the necessary schematics.
Companies also take active measures to discourage tinkering. Like many modern machines, John Deere’s tractors are a marriage of mechanical and electronic technology. And the company requires replacement parts to be verified electronically — a process akin to clearing passport control.
In addition to the high cost of repairs, farmers complain about having to wait for a certified technician during harvest season, when every minute of daylight is precious.
Apple and John Deere both have made some concessions. Apple no longer threatens to void phone warranties if screens are repaired by other companies. Last year it paid to install screen-repair machinery at 30 stores owned by an independent retailer, Simply Mac, in parts of the country not previously served by authorized Apple technicians. Deere has agreed to offer its manuals and diagnostic software for sale by 2021.
There is still a clear need for a national and enforceable standard.
The Federal Trade Commission is showing interest in the issue, and plans to hold a hearing in July on “Nixing the Fix: A Workshop on Repair Restrictions.”
But solving the issue may not require national legislation. After Massachusetts passed its auto repair law in 2012, major carmakers agreed to nationalize those standards in a signed agreement with trade groups representing independent auto repair shops.
A single state law could prove a dam buster for other kinds of products, too. Information and parts available in one state, after all, are effectively available in every state.
Legislators in 20 states have introduced some version of right-to-repair legislation this year. The front-runner is a bill in Minnesota, where similar legislation has been proposed for several years. This bill is expected to reach the floor of the Minnesota House this month.
Apple and John Deere, among other companies, have lobbied vigorously, and so far with success, against proposals for state right-to-repair laws. Companies say that they are seeking to ensure the quality of repairs, protecting both their customers and their own reputations.
They also have raised more sensational concerns. Lydia Brasch, a Nebraska state senator who proposed such a law in 2017, said an Apple lobbyist warned her that Nebraska would become a hot spot for hackers, and that it was dangerous to play with lithium batteries.
The company is welcome to persuade people to patronize its own repair facilities, or to buy new iPhones. But there ought to be a law against forcing the issue.
An open marketplace for repairs benefits consumers, independent retailers and the environment. Modern devices are increasingly complicated; that concept is not.


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