Why You Should Care About Your Right to Repair Gadgets

When your car has problems, your instinct is probably to take it to a mechanic. But when something goes wrong with your smartphone — say, a shattered screen or a depleted battery — you may wonder: “Is it time to buy a new one?” That’s because even as our consumer electronics have become as vital as our cars, the idea of tech repair still hasn’t been sown into our collective consciousness. Studies have shown that when tech products begin to fail, most people are inclined to buy new things rather than fix their old ones.

“Repair is inconvenient and difficult, so people don’t seek it,” said Nathan Proctor, a director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization, who is working on legislation to make tech repair more accessible. “Because people don’t expect to repair things, they replace things when by far the most logical thing to do is to repair it.” It doesn’t have to be this way. More of us could maintain our tech products, as we do with cars if it were more practical. Repairs would become more straightforward and less expensive if we all had more access to the parts, instructions, and tools to revive products.

This premise is at the heart of the “Right to Repair” Act, a proposed legislation that activists and tech companies have fought over for nearly a decade. Recently, right-to-repair supporters scored two significant wins. In May, the Federal Trade Commission published a report explaining how tech companies harmed competition by restricting repairs. And last Friday, President Biden issued an executive order that included a directive for the F.T.C. to limit how tech manufacturers could limit repairs. The F.T.C. is set to meet next week to discuss new policies about electronics repair. You need to know here about the fight over your right to fix gadgets.


What is the right-to-repair act?

The legislation, which was previously proposed in about two dozen states and is now being discussed on a federal level, would require tech and appliance manufacturers to provide the tools, instructions, and parts necessary for anyone to fix their smartphones, tablets, computers, and refrigerators, as well as other products. That would be a significant shift. Tech companies only provide service tools and parts to a network of officially approved partners, including big brands with service centers like Best Buy and independent repair shops. These official partners typically follow strict rules, including using genuine parts bought directly from the manufacturer, so costs to the customer may be higher than repairs done by unauthorized repair centers. By making resources broadly available, the unofficial repair centers could more easily compete to reduce costs. And that would repair a more compelling option than buying a new gadget.

Why should I care?

Tech products are among our most expensive household purchases, and their prices keep climbing. Not long ago, the price of a high-end smartphone was $650. Today, new Apple and Samsung phones start at $700 and $800; the average household would save $330 a year if it repaired products rather than replaced them, which adds up to $40 billion nationwide.

July 15, 2021, 9:32 p.m. E.T.

By prolonging the life of your gadgets, you would also put more use into the energy, metals, plastics, and human labor invested in creating the product.

Why don’t more people repair their tech?

There are several barriers to repairing consumer electronics that can make it intimidating.

  • Basic repairs are not simple, like replacing a shattered screen or a depleted battery, Modern gadgets are so thin and tightly glued together that special tools are usually needed to open them. It’s also not straightforward to buy genuine parts — you can’t go to the Apple or Samsung website to order a replacement screen or battery, for example.
  • Fixing essential components is also becoming increasingly impractical for unauthorized repair shops, especially with Apple phones. Independent fixers said many crucial parts inside newer iPhones, including cameras, batteries, and screens, require proprietary software tools to finish the job.
  • Going to the Apple and Microsoft retail stores and authorized repair shops is a simple option, but the costs there can be so high that you might be persuaded to buy a new device. When I took my wife’s iPhone to an Apple Store this year, I was quoted $280 to replace a broken touch-screen, about 40 percent of the price of a brand-new iPhone. I turned to another route instead.

Why won’t unauthorized fixers become authorized?

Independent fixers get access to tools, parts, and repair instructions when they. They enroll in partnerships with tech companies to become authorized service centers. But Kyle Wiens, chief executive of iFixit, which publishes free instruction manuals for people to restore their gadgets, said many independent fixers were turned off by the contractual terms to become authorized.

One requirement to be an authorized Apple repair center involves collecting detailed service records, including customer names, product serial numbers, and mailing addresses. This information must be provided to Apple during an audit to verify that repairs are done correctly. Even if a repair provider terminates its agreement with Apple, it must agree to continue to share this information with the company for two years.

There is also the issue of price. Shakeel Taiyab, an independent fixer in South San Francisco, said he charged lower prices to customers because he obtained authentic parts from channels such as electronics refurbishers who extract working components from defective gadgets. (He charged me $180 to fix my wife’s iPhone screen, undercutting the Apple store by $100.) Mr. Taiyab said he would follow the rules if he became an authorized provider, resulting in rising customer prices — something he didn’t want to do. Apple declined to comment. A spokesman referred to a news release of 1,500 authorized, independent repair centers across the United States, Canada, and Europe.

Why are tech giants opposed to the right to repair?

Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google have contributed to lobbying against the Right-to-repair Act. The most common argument is security — the idea that people with access to repair and diagnostics tools could perform illegitimate repairs and steal people’s data. TechNet, a trade group representing Apple, Google, Amazon, and others, said opening up repair could harm consumers. “Allowing unvetted third parties access to sensitive diagnostic information, software, tools, and parts would jeopardize the safety of consumers’ devices and put consumers at risk for fraud,” Carl Holshouser, a TechNet executive, said in a statement. But in its report, the F.T.C. concluded that there was “scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.”

Why is it easier to service a car?

When your car breaks down, you can take it to a dealership’s service center or get more affordable service from an independent mechanic. Cars are more customizable with aftermarket parts, and essential maintenance and repair jobs like changing the oil or replacing a cracked windshield don’t require special software. In 2012, Massachusetts enacted a right-to-repair law for automobiles, and automakers agreed to adopt the requirements of the law nationwide. After cars evolved to rely more heavily on computers, the legislation helped make special tools and instructions broadly available to independent mechanics for repairs. “When your car breaks down, you know exactly what to do,” Mr. Proctor said. “You find a mechanic, you pay, and it’s back. If you don’t like your mechanic, you find another one. Or you could go to the dealer if you want.” In other words, buying a new car is the last resort. And buying a new phone could become one, too.

Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!