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The Right to Repair: Populism vs. Manufacturer Disinformation

Christopher Frawley Christopher Frawley
6th April 2021
The Right to Repair: Populism vs. Manufacturer Disinformation

Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.

In the past, when a customer bought a product, it belonged to them. They had the right to do whatever they wanted; be it modify it, fix it when it broke down, or scrap it for parts. Money changed hands and the manufacturer no longer had any say in what was done with the device. Cars, computers, and other tech products came with schematics and manuals (or if not, they were easily obtainable). Now, that’s all changed. 

Modern companies such as Apple and John Deere have done everything in their power to prevent people outside of their respective companies from tinkering with their respective products. Schematics, manuals, and diagrams are increasingly difficult to obtain, even for authorized repair centers. Products sometimes require a password or service key to read diagnostic information, and might require calibration software to activate new spare parts (if such software is even accessible). Parts themselves have become highly serialized and difficult for the layperson to obtain. In some cases, third-party parts will even render a device completely unusable after software updates.  

As a result of deliberately keeping schematics and the like hidden from consumers and third party repair outlets, many tech companies hold effective monopolies on repair. Fixes done by Apple and other corporations are overpriced, sometimes charging customers more than they ought to by replacing more components of a device than are necessary. Not only is this extremely consumer unfriendly, it is also wasteful and environmentally damaging (a subject on which Apple allegedly stands against).

Speaking of waste, that is exactly what farmers get when their equipment isn’t working when they need it to. The fact is, farmers in the modern era are highly dependent on technology to grow and collect food. Tractors, combine harvesters, and other equipment have all become increasingly digitized with the progression of technology. While this is a theoretical improvement, in reality it adds complications for repairing broken tools. A massive tractor can be crippled by the slightest error due to shutdown codes, rendering the device useless until an officially licensed technician can visit the site to use diagnostic software and repair tools to fix it. In an industry where breakdowns are frequent and time is of the essence, this is a huge problem. 

John Deere, the well-known manufacturer of industrial farming equipment, has become notorious in recent years for their stubbornness on the repair issue. Despite their own mild promises to break bread with customers, John Deere has failed to cover their end of the bargain. As a result, farmers have had little choice but to hack their own equipment in order to not miss out on crucial opportunities during the harvest season. Some even prefer to use older equipment, solely because they can repair it easily and on-the-spot. 

While the right to repair iphones and tractors etc, is an important issue, repairing critically important medical equipment is another matter entirely. Lack of spare parts and technical manuals, poor training for technicians, missing technical support from manufacturers, and a lack of preventive maintenance all contribute to hampering medical technology on a regular basis. The ability of a medical technician to fix a device like a ventilator can quite literally mean the difference between life and death, which has become all too clear during the pandemic. 

Medical technicians who ought to have the right to repair crucial equipment have been stalled by the companies who sold that equipment. Since those companies hold monopolies on repair, hospitals are forced to wait until official repair people arrive to make fixes themselves. This is an annoyance at the best of times, and a complete catastrophe at the worst. A rural hospital might have to wait on a knife’s edge for an official service person to show up and repair equipment, all while lives are at stake. 

Manufacturers have claimed that third party repairs are a safety hazard, but the FDA found in 2018 that third party repairs are no more risky than manufacturer repairs, and that they are even essential for the healthcare system to function efficiently. Despite this, manufacturers still stand in the way. When an October 2020 bill was introduced in Congress which would make progress towards implementing right-to-repair in the medical field, it was stalled soon after. This legislation is part of a larger movement: Right to Repair.

The Right to Repair movement proposes that the tech world does not have to be this way. There was a time when the average person was capable and willing to repair the equipment they used on a daily basis, and it could be like that again. Although electronic repair is daunting to the technologically stunted (myself included), it is very much doable if the needed resources are available and companies do not intentionally place roadblocks in the way. At the least, the public would be able to rely on third-party companies to have the resources necessary to consistently repair equipment with standardized parts for a reasonable price. 

While Right to Repair legislation is currently active in 25 states, it is an uphill struggle to say the least. Apple alone has a corporate net worth of $2 trillion, and is known for actively lobbying state and federal legislatures. With near-infinite resources at their fingertips, it will come down to more than just money to get right-to-repair bills passed: the will of the people will have to push this issue.

In an ideal situation, third-party companies are able to compete on an even playing field with original equipment manufacturers to give consumers the greatest variety of options. Healthy rivalries encourage better products and innovation, the cornerstones of the free market. These situations are possible, and do occur sometimes. However, this is only possible when the necessary resources are available to everyone, and not hidden behind obstructive walls. 

The writing of this article was greatly aided by the videos of Louis Rossmann, a Youtuber with years of experience repairing Apple products, and an active supporter of Right to Repair. His channel is full of tutorials which show the average person how to fix their own laptops, phones, etc. Overall, Louis is an exemplary representative of the Right to Repair movement and his channel is excellent. Visit repair.org to learn more about Right to Repair, and how you can get involved.

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images

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