Consumers fight for the right to repair their devices

To fix or to replace was once the choice of the consumer. Over time, manufacturers have chipped away at the ability to repair. Now, independent repair firms and frustrated consumers are fighting to reclaim that right

  • By Callum Glennen | Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

Removing the right to repair means that manufacturers have the unilateral ability to hobble devices and force consumers into early upgrades

In May 2016, owners of the Revolv smart home system woke up to an unpleasant surprise. Two years after being purchased by Nest, a subsidiary of Alphabet, the company announced its $300 smart home hub would stop working. The Revolv hub connected a number of smart appliances and gadgets, such as lights, thermostats and burglar alarms, to a central base. Smart home systems function better the more that is connected, and early adopters were encouraged to substantially buy into the system. According to a post on the Revolv website at the time of the shutdown, Nest no longer had the resources available to keep the system running.

For owners of a Revolv hub, their choice was to either purchase a new Nest system or ditch their smart home gadgets entirely. The number of Revolv users was likely quite small (hence the decision to shut it down) but for the people who did use it, the situation stung. Suddenly, completely out of their control, their homes would effectively stop working, with the only alternative being the purchase of another expensive device.

While the average person probably lacks the know-how to open up and repair a smartphone, the locking down of devices has also impacted the independent repair industry

While the case of Revolv could be seen as a damning indictment of smart homes and connected appliances in general, its shutdown also raises a more philosophical question: did anyone who purchased a Revolv smart home hub ever actually own it? Despite paying $300 for the device, it could be permanently shut down by the company with little to no warning. Even if someone did have the expertise to keep the system running, the tools needed to repair it are unavailable to anyone outside the company that built it. Looking at the details, it seems a lot more like rental than actual ownership.

With many more devices being built in this way, efforts to re-establish the concept of ownership and return more competition to both the private and public repair sectors are currently underway. Though a slow process, the right to repair is gradually building momentum all over the world.

Small beginnings
When something breaks, its owner would typically expect to have the choice to either replace it, or repair it if possible. That may be through the original manufacturer, but it may also be through a third-party repairperson or even on their own, should the owner have the requisite skill.

However, with many modern gadgets and devices, repair is no easy task. Many manufacturers are now using proprietary tools or refusing to sell replacement components, instead requiring individuals to return products to the original manufacturer. Accessing the inside of the most recent iPhone, for example, requires a proprietary screwdriver that the company does not sell.

While the average person probably lacks the know-how to open up and repair a smartphone, the locking down of devices has also impacted the independent repair industry. With the parts and tools needed to repair a device only available to the original manufacturer, many independent repairers are finding a growing number of devices impossible to fix. In response to this, organised groups have begun fighting to ensure access to the parts and tools they need. One such group is the Repair Association in the US.

Gay Gordon-Byrne, Executive Director of the Repair Association, said the group, which is a coalition of independent repair trade associations, was formed in 2013 after finding they couldn’t repair the devices they had been fixing for years. “We thought we’d all been living in isolation, then we started finding out that we were all suffering the same problems, but within what used to be different industries.”

While the average person probably lacks the know-how to open up and repair a smartphone, the locking down of devices has also impacted the independent repair industry

Gordon-Byrne said many technology companies, including Apple and Oracle, started making independent repair far more difficult at around the same time. And, while the issue began in consumer electronics, other industries have also been affected. Repairers working in agriculture, medical devices and industrial equipment also began discovering they were no longer able to repair the devices they once could.

“We thought: ‘Holy cow, our businesses are dead if we don’t get this fixed’, and we looked at the future and found the future looks terrible”, Gordon-Byrne explained. “Because if anybody else copies these policies, we’re dead.”

Hard lock
The path to independent repair has been blocked in a number of different ways. Aside from making physical tools unavailable, through such methods as creating proprietary screws and screwdrivers, companies have also begun obstructing the digital tools needed to assess what is wrong with a device. When a modern digital device fails, it usually presents an error code to the user.

“You need to have a diagnostic tool to figure out what that code is, like ‘E8’ for example”, Gordon-Byrne said. “What does that mean? If you can’t get the list of codes, you don’t know what’s even wrong, and you don’t know where to start. You need to know, usually from a service manual, what the testing procedure is.”

Software itself also poses challenges. If a repair requires the replacement of a storage device, for example, a copy of the software powering the device is needed. Unfortunately, manufacturers have made the process of copying this data difficult.

“You’ve got to be able to get the firmware so you can download it, because even though under US copyright law it’s legal to backup and restore all of your copyrighted software for purposes of repair, there are a lot of products that ship with no backup and restore capability”, Gordon-Byrne said.

For less common, more specialised or more obscure devices, there is neither the time nor the business case for third parties to figure out how they work

There is also the question of parts. Many manufactures are locking away their part libraries to ensure that, even if a device could be repaired, the parts needed would not be widely available.

Through these locks, companies say they are able to offer better service to customers, as well as protecting trade secrets. Additionally, the practice locks consumers into a product ecosystem that is difficult and costly to escape. Gordon-Byrne noted Apple’s business model of cyclical repairs and device replacement is the perfect example of this.

“If you get involved in that product line, you’re really going to have almost no options other than to continue to replace that product whenever Apple wants you to. When a manufacturer decides they want you to buy a new model, they can obsolete the old one almost instantly by not providing any means to repair it.”

That said, with the number of independent iPhone repair stores around, one could be forgiven for thinking the repair industry has no problems. Despite being one of the best examples of a system that is a challenge to repair, the sheer popularity of the device has encouraged independent repairers to develop their own manuals, share information and create a market for third-party parts.

“Despite Apple not wanting to allow people to repair its stuff, there’s a goodly amount of repair that gets done”, Gordon-Byrne explained. “But there’s a level of repair that can’t be done without Apple’s cooperation.”

However, not all devices are as popular as the iPhone. For the less common, more specialised or more obscure devices, there is neither the time nor the business case for third parties to figure out how they work. Gordon-Byrne picked a Pioneer power supply as a random example. “This thing is 10 years old, I seriously doubt anybody could fix it. Not because parts are going to be rare, but because nobody is going to have the diagrams, nobody is going to have the schematics, and it’s going to take too long to figure them out.”

The challenges aren’t limited to the US; the situation in Europe is similar. Jan Hoogstrate from the Free ICT Europe Foundation said his organisation is facing the same hurdles. As well as working to overcome the challenges in accessing systems and parts, the organisation is also trying to make sure customers know they have the option to repair independently, and that they recognise the environmental benefits of repairing over replacing. “A fair playing field is the target. Manufacturers are not the enemy – we need their products”, Hoogstrate explained.

With the recent surge in smart devices, the prevalence of computers is only becoming more widespread. As more devices now include electronics in some form or another, software is appearing in entirely new industries. With the promise everything in our future will be connected via the Internet of Things, an ever greater number of everyday objects are going to become difficult or impossible to repair.

John Deere tried to make a link between the right to repair and music piracy, such was the manufacturer’s aversion to giving customers free rein

Tractor phone
To curb these efforts, the Repair Association has backed a number of state-level bills in the US to enshrine the right to repair in law. The changes would ensure independent repairers and private individuals would have the right to access service manuals, diagnostic tools and the necessary parts, if available. While the legislation would function only at state level, it could be enough to prompt a change at national level; manufacturers would struggle to implement a policy in one state and not the rest.

The legislation is following a template already established within the auto industry. The automotive right to repair had been brewing for over a decade when a law was passed in Massachusetts in 2012. From the early 2000s, cars had increasingly featured more complex electric components and computers. These systems started out in high-end luxury and performance cars before trickling down to become standard features. Notably, they required interaction with software to diagnose and repair problems. While changing a tyre remained much the same, working out the exact reason a dashboard alert was on required software. As manufacturers only supplied the necessary diagnostic equipment to approved garages, an independent business could only repair the simplest problems.

The legislation ended up being a tremendous success: after being passed in Massachusetts with 86 percent voter support, a national policy soon followed. Rather than contend with the potential for 50 different state bills, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Association of Global Automakers, the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association and the Coalition for Automotive Repair Equality announced the development of a national memorandum of understanding. All cars badged 2018 and onwards will use a standard and non-proprietary connector, allowing mechanics to access a car’s service information, while manufacturers are required to sell repair tools for a reasonable price. Exempt will be any information that is considered proprietary or a trade secret.

While drafted from the same mould, a comparable standard for software-embedded equipment and electronic items is still in its earliest stages. In March this year, the bill was presented in Nebraska for public hearing. Headlines were dominated by tractor manufacturers Case IH and John Deere, which attended the hearing with their representatives, arguing the bill would create safety risks by providing a way for criminals to breach the security of their tractors, and would also expose their intellectual property to unlicensed use. Despite the press focus on agricultural equipment, the bill covered gadgets in general with representatives from Apple and industry bodies also arguing against it. In support were lobbyists and members of the Repair Association.

Go to IKEA, and you get every tool you need to put the thing together. Why does Apple not provide a screwdriver if they want to use a proprietary screw?

The formation of the Nebraskan Government is unique: due to the limited time senators have at their disposal, each can only select a single bill as having priority. Without priority, a bill will not be voted on. Approximately 90 minutes before the public hearing began, a shuffling of priorities resulted in the right to repair bill losing out.

Gordon-Byrne admitted the last minute decision was extremely disappointing. “A lot of lobbyists there came in from out of town and I’m sure they weren’t unhappy because they were paid, but the volunteers who came in and took time away from their businesses to come testify were really upset, and justifiably so.”

Gordon-Byrne couldn’t explain why the bill was dropped at the last minute: “That’s the one piece I can’t really speak to, because it had to have been something going on internally within the dynamics of the legislature. I can’t put my finger on any blame. It was always up in the air, and it made me nervous all year.”

While a setback, it is nowhere near the end for the legislation. The bill will be refiled in Nebraska with the hope of gaining priority, and similar bills are in various stages of development in a number of other US states.

Software scheme
Even if these bills pass, the question of ownership might remain a thorny issue. Companies’ efforts to protect their intellectual property rights have slowly merged with hardware ownership, creating greater challenges. In the US, hardware manufacturers frequently cite the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) as the reason for limiting access to the software in their devices. The DMCA was initially intended to protect content creators from having their work shared freely online, with movies, music and games the main media in mind.

Hardware manufacturers, however, have harnessed the legislation and now use it to justify placing a number of locks on the software that controls their devices, rendering it completely inaccessible to anyone but the manufacturer, arguing that, if these locks were removed, their software could be stolen. Gordon-Byrne said changes to copyright law are handled at a federal level, and making alterations to those laws would be a long and slow process.

Another worrying trend is the increasing number of end-user licence agreements that include references to hardware. Although software may be covered by these restrictions, attaching it to the sale of hardware should be separate. In some cases, agreements even state the software or hardware can’t be resold.

Gordon-Byrne said this deteriorates the definition of ownership to the point where it is questionable whether it exists at all. “If there’s a licence it really should be a fully separate agreement: it should have a price, it should have terms and conditions, and it should be wholly separate from the hardware. But, if you put it in the hardware contract, you’ve now turned the hardware into a licence, and therefore you don’t really own it.”

Boxing clever
At the end of the day, Gordon-Byrne noted, if efforts to support independent repairers aren’t made, the definition of ownership will continue to be eroded to the point of nothingness. “The less and less people become accustomed to being able to fix their stuff, the more ingrained it’s going to become into their thought process that that’s OK.”

To see what ownership should be like, Gordon-Byrne said you only need to look at Swedish furniture. “Go to IKEA, and you get every tool you need to put the thing together. Why does Apple not provide a screwdriver if they want to use a proprietary screw? We can’t make them provide a screwdriver, but we can make them sell one. It’s that kind of stuff. We’ve always been able to repair our stuff even when it had a computer in it – even when it was a computer. And then, all of a sudden, companies said we don’t feel like letting anybody touch our stuff. And they start treating products as though they still own them. And they don’t own them; they sold them.”

While the process of establishing a right to repair will continue for many years as negotiations play out, in the immediate future online communities will continue to pull apart devices and come up with their own solutions. But, to make sure this can continue, changes in the law need to be made. With the public popularity similar bills have enjoyed in the past, manufacturers may face an uphill struggle if they want to continue to make devices more difficult to repair.