Right to Repair — A Primer
“Right to Repair” is a buzzword that has been going around a lot lately. But what does it mean and why is it a source of controversy? Right to Repair refers to advocacy groups and laws that support consumers’ rights to repair electronic goods post-purchase.
The movement is a response to measures taken by manufacturers to deter users from attempting to fix broken products, as opposed to buying new ones. For example, manufacturers don’t offer replacement parts or documentation, charge hefty fees for repair services, or penalize users for doing home fixes (e.g., by voiding your warranty or triggering software locks/firmware updates). Some go a step further by making their products difficult to disassemble. For example, Apple uses “Pentalobe” screws in their iPhones that cannot be turned with traditional screwdrivers.
The position of the tech companies appears to be that, in a free market, they should have the autonomy to decide what parts and support they will offer. They also allege that limitations on aftermarket repairs are needed for customer safety, quality control, privacy/cybersecurity, and protection of intellectual property.
But consumers argue that they should be able to exercise full control over electronic goods that they purchase and accuse the manufacturers of abridging that exercise. They portray manufacturers as prioritizing profits over people and engaging in a type of extortion.
Right to Repair transcends the personal sphere into the political. Environmentalists see the movement as pro-sustainability and anti-waste. Right to repair is recognized as good for small businesses, like mom n’ pop repair shops. Vulnerable people are thought to be hit the hardest by anti-repair measures. In the FTC’s May 2021 report to Congress, “Nixing the Fix,” they presented findings that:
“[T]he burden of repair restrictions may fall more heavily on communities of color and lower-income communities. Many Black-owned small businesses are in the repair and maintenance industries, and difficulties facing small businesses can disproportionately affect small businesses owned by people of color. This fact has not been lost on supporters of prior right to repair legislation, who have highlighted the impact repair restrictions have on repair shops that are independent and owned by entrepreneurs from underserved communities. Repair restrictions for some products — such as smartphones — also may place a greater financial burden on communities of color and lower-income Americans. According to Pew Research, Black and Hispanic Americans are about twice as likely as white Americans to have smartphones, but no broadband access at home. Similarly, lower-income Americans are more likely to be smartphone-dependent. This smartphone dependency makes repair restrictions on smartphones more likely to affect these communities adversely.”
Recognizing the demand for DIY repairs, many third party suppliers have started selling parts and providing fix-it guides.
Lawmakers have also weighed in. Some legislators view anti-repair activity as a violation of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which essentially prohibits voiding a warranty based on a user’s attempt to repair a product. To date, 17 states have enacted legislation requiring manufacturers to give independent repair shops access to genuine parts, tools, and information. Yet there are no laws on the books that grant a right at the individual level.
As electronic goods get more expensive, we can expect to hear more from supporters of the Right to Repair movement. More states may join-in on passing Right to Repair laws. And perhaps manufacturers and consumers will arrive at a truce where DIY repairs can be facilitated in a way that is mutually beneficial to customer and corporate interests.