What Is the Right to Repair and Why Should You Care?

When old technology broke, you could fix yourself. If that failed, you could find a repair shop. With newer products, those options are disappearing. Let’s talk about the importance of the Right to Repair.

omphoto via Shutterstock.com

Key Takeaways

  • Companies intentionally prevent us from fixing our own devices and limit access to repair information, raising questions about true ownership and control over our purchases.
  • The right to repair is the ability to fix technology ourselves or have someone other than the manufacturer do it. It should be a given if we own something.
  • Tech companies and manufacturers oppose right to repair laws as it threatens their profits, but there have been victories in the movement, such as agreements providing access to diagnostic tools and repair information for independent garages and retailers.

When old technology broke, you could fix it yourself or get someone down the road to do it for you. This got the job done cheaper than going straight to the manufacturer. But it is now often impossible to fix our own stuff.

This change was not accidental. Companies deliberately design products to prevent us from finding replacement parts and don’t even make information available to repair shops. In doing so, they’ve called into question whether we truly own our purchases at all.

In response, a growing number of people are demanding a change. They are insisting that our right to repair be enshrined in law.

What Is the Right to Repair?

This is the right to fix technology yourself or have someone other than the manufacturer do the work for you. The right-to-repair concept isn’t listed in the US Bill of Rights, but that doesn’t make its existence seem like any less of a given. If you buy something, it’s yours. If it’s yours, you should be able to fix it.

This seems obvious, but take a look at the things in your home. Can you fix the device you’re reading this on? What about the game console under your TV? If your smart speaker suffered from a physical defect, do you have any options besides asking for a refund or sending it back for repairs? Are you aware of a repair shop you could send it to instead?

Why Do We Need Right to Repair Laws?

Over the past century, companies across any number of industries have designed products to become obsolete, known as planned obsolescence, while some started making proprietary parts to keep owners from extending how long a product lasts. This tactic offered a way to grow profits by increasing the number of times consumers needed to buy the same product throughout their lives.

Today, many smartphones and tablets are designed to prevent you from cracking them open. Apple went so far as to create a special screw to prevent consumers and repair shops from getting inside.

Being the only one who can make repairs provides a company with a monopoly, so they can charge as much as they want for replacements. Most people won’t want to pay that price and opt to buy a new one instead. Either way, the manufacturer makes more money.

This isn’t just a consumer tech problem. Farmers can have to haul a tractor hundreds of miles to get a manufacturer to fix the onboard computer, which is why farmers became early right-to-repair advocates, as Vice reported in 2017. That’s a painful loss of time and labor. The struggle is such that a black market of John Deere parts formed, according to Road and Track, connecting Nebraska farmers with counterparts in Eastern Europe to buy unlocked tractor firmware.

Rural states like Nebraska are especially hard hit by the status quo. Authorized retailers tend to be in major urban areas. Apple’s list of brick-and-mortar stores shows only one in all of Nebraska. Only a handful of authorized repair shops exist elsewhere in the state.

Do Companies Oppose Right to Repair Laws?

In 2016, tech companies such as Apple successfully blocked a right-to-repair bill in New York before the measure could come to a vote, as HuffPost reported. BuzzFeed reported that in Nebraska, companies opposed the proposed Adopt the Fair Repair Act, with Apple’s representative arguing that such a law would make the state a “Mecca for bad actors.” Similar bills have failed in Wyoming, Kansas, Minnesota, Illinois, Tennessee, and Massachusetts.

Apple is hardly working alone. The various tech industry groups taking the company’s side in opposing Nebraska’s right-to-repair bill represent Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Nintendo, and others.

For corporations, this is a matter of increasing profits. For repair shops, this is an issue of being able to stay in business (and being relevant). For people in the healthcare industry, this can be a matter of life or death.

Right to Repair Victories

According to Automotive News, in 2014, right-to-repair advocates and trade groups representing automakers agreed to a deal providing independent garages and retailers with the same diagnostic tools that manufacturers give their franchised dealers.

More recently, while smartphones remain difficult to fix, Apple iPhones are less looked down on than they once were. Apple does now offer an Apple self-repair kit for certain models. And that’s because momentum on the issue started to shift further in favor of the right-to-repair movement.

In 2021, within his first year in office, US President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order directing the Federal Trade Commission to, among other things, target “unfair anti-competitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items, such as the restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment.”

In 2022, the New York state legislature passed the Digital Fair Repair Act, requiring original equipment manufacturers who do business within the state to provide diagnostic and repair information, though some amendments containing loopholes entered the bill before becoming law. In 2023, Minnesota passed a law with the same name, which made it through without such loopholes.

Those farmers facing off against John Deere? In 2023, the American Farm Bureau Federation and John Deere announced an agreement giving farmers access to tools and information needed to fix their equipment. A few months later, according to Reuters, Colorado became the first state to pass a law mandating companies like John Deere to provide information and access needed to fix their own equipment. A year earlier, Colorado passed a law requiring people to be permitted to repair their own wheelchairs.

What Can You Do to Support the Right to Repair?

You can take steps to support the right-to-repair movement and keep the momentum building.

  • Pressure your representatives to propose and support right to repair bills where you live. Since there aren’t many alternatives available, tech companies can continue monopolistic practices unless they’re legally barred from doing so. This is an issue where it’s difficult to vote with our dollar, though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make an effort however we can.
  • Avoid the shiny and new. The idea of a smart home may sound nice, but unless you’re MacGyvering a system yourself, there’s a good chance you’re filling your house with non-repairable tech. On laptops and tablets, sleek often means you’re not fixing it yourself.
  • Look for screws. If you can open a device using readily available tools, that’s a sign the manufacturer intends for other people to operate on the hardware. That person may need to be an expert, but at least the option exists.
  • Consider free and open-source software. This community considers the ability to fix and edit your own software to be a fundamental right. Developers also strive to support old hardware indefinitely, unlike commercial operating systems that only prioritize the latest generations of hardware. You can run Linux on an old computer that a Windows technician would say is in dire need of repair.
  • Avoid specialized software. As a writer, I could buy a MacBook and get access to an abundance of quirky tools. Alternatively, I can learn how to write in Markdown and become as productive on a Raspberry Pi with a keyboard and monitor as I would on a $2,400 laptop. Then I have the option not to give my money to companies actively trying to destroy my right to repair.
  • Become acquainted with iFixit. This community-supported site shows if your latest splurge is repairable.

Long-term, we need a circular economy that encourages everyone to get as much as possible from the resources we consume. Repairing and reusing our gadgets is a big part of making this happen.

Can We Repair This Right?

We increasingly live in a world where we own neither our data nor the apps that access those files. It’s not even a given that we can use the products we buy in the way that we wish. At the very least, we should be able to fix broken devices and other hardware.

But sadly, repairing our gadgets is no longer a given. If we want this situation to change, we have to demand as much from companies using our wallets and the law. It also helps to understand some of the arguments against designing devices to be repairable.

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Bertel King