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Can that iPhone be fixed? Consumers seek the ‘right to repair.’

Why We Wrote This

In a throwaway culture of increasingly complex goods – from smartphones to tractors – a battle pits consumer freedom against manufacturer control of sensitive parts and technology.

Mike Segar/Reuters/File
Apple has expanded its repair network to some 5,000 authorized service providers worldwide, lowered the cost of battery replacement, and simplified screen repair. But smartphones and other durable goods are the focus of potential regulations in 18 states that aim to allow consumers even more flexibility than many makers currently do.

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Here’s a test: How quickly can you replace the battery in your smartphone? If it’s a few seconds, you probably own a phone that’s several years old. If it’s minutes – or looks so complicated you’d never want to attempt it – you probably have a newer phone and a problem. Phones, computers, medical equipment, and even tractors are getting so sophisticated that they’re increasingly difficult to repair. That complexity has sparked a backlash and concern about growing amounts of electronic waste. The right-to-repair movement is pushing legislators in 18 states to pass laws that would make electronics and machinery easier and cheaper for consumers and independent repair shops to fix. The push follows a similar initiative around cars five years ago. But farm equipment and smartphone manufacturers are working to head off public pressure with plans of their own, which could turn out to be far more limited than what right-to-repair advocates are pushing for.

Two miles from Apple’s sprawling campus in Cupertino, Calif., Cupertino iPhone Repair is doing a bang-up business repairing iPhones and other Apple products. 

Its secret to success: It repairs the electronic gadgets faster and more cheaply than Apple itself. It’s challenge: The shop can’t use any Apple parts and has to tell customers that if it repairs their unit, Apple will probably refuse to service it, even under warranty.

“They don't want to service those phones,” says Lakshmi Agrawal, co-owner of Cupertino iPhone Repair. “They just try to sell the new phones.”

It’s not just smartphones. As computers, medical equipment, even tractors become more computerized, manufacturers are making it increasingly difficult for customers to repair their products. Their restrictions have spawned a backlash among consumers, advocates, and independent repair shops that insist they have a right to repair. 

The standoff pits companies, which are anxious to protect their proprietary software from hackers, against some of their customers, who want repairs to be cheaper and easier. The current system discourages repair outright, they charge, or make it so expensive that consumers buy new products and throw away the old, exaggerating an electronic waste problem that is growing large. 

“People say I’m anti-Apple. I’m not. I love my iPhone,” says Nathan Proctor, who heads the right to repair campaign for US Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG), a Denver-based nonprofit advocacy organization. But “it’s my phone and regardless of why they think I shouldn't be able to fix it, I bought it, I own it, and I just want to keep it working.”

So far this year, 18 states have considered right-to-repair bills, although none has passed. At the same time, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, and the National Corn Growers Association are petitioning the US Copyright Office to renew its exemption that allows farmers to modify software to diagnose and fix their machines. The farm groups also want to expand the exemption to include independent repair shops.

They point to what happened to car repair after a 2013 Massachusetts law, which gave owners and independent shops access to the same diagnostic and repair data that dealers and authorized repair facilities have. The following year, two industry trade groups agreed to take the Massachusetts model national and fully implement it by this year.

Feeling the pressure, national farm equipment manufacturers and dealers organizations in February agreed to implement their own version of right to repair by 2021. How far-reaching the agreement will be in practice is not yet known. The groups, for example, make a distinction between the right to repair and the right to modify software.

“Allowing untrained individuals to modify equipment software can endanger operators, bystanders, dealers, mechanics, customers, and others,” Ken Golden, a spokesman for Deere & Co., wrote in an email. “This software helps ensure the equipment meets safety, emissions, and other standards and regulations.”

Medical equipment manufacturers make the same argument. Untrained repairers could damage highly sensitive and expensive machines. That is why they use digital codes and passwords to lock away this software. The software is protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes it a crime to hack or steal proprietary software. 

But these same practices also create a closed loop where only the company and the dealers it authorizes can fix the machinery.

That closed loop is often highly profitable. By one estimate, the maintenance market for medical equipment should reach $2.2 billion worldwide by 2020. And it either keeps repairs in the hands of a few authorized shops, who pay the company for that privilege, or discourages repairs at all, sometimes denying access to parts or making them so expensive that repairs are not economical.

“It’s gotten harder to repair computers than when we started,” says Roger Jermyn, owner of Plug-n-Play PC, an independent repair shop in Waltham, Mass. “As computers have come down in price, it’s actually less likely they're going to be repaired.” Rather than pay $750 for a new part, customers typically choose to buy a new $1,000 machine.

Smartphones, however, are going up in price, with the newest Apple models topping $1,000. They may make consumers even more reluctant to upgrade their phones on a frequent basis – and putting more pressure on Apple to change its ways.

“We throw away 416,000 phones every day,” says Mr. Proctor of US PIRG. “And one-third of the world does not have access to cellphones. We can't just have a completely one-way ‘make-use-toss’ system, given limited planetary resources.” [Editor's note:  This paragraph was changed to correct the number of phones disposed of daily.]

The problem isn’t limited to Apple. Other smartphone makers have also made their models more difficult to repair. The 2010-era Samsung Galaxy S5, for example, has a pop-off plastic back that allows access to change the battery and the memory within seconds. Today’s S9, by contrast, requires heating the metal back to loosen the adhesive, a suction cup to help pry it off, the removal of 15 Phillips-head screws, and two other parts before the battery can be removed.

These difficult-to-remove lithium batteries are, in turn, making it difficult and dangerous for recyclers to reclaim the parts. As reported two weeks ago by The Washington Post, these batteries are causing fires in recycling trucks and centers.

Apple, which has never taken a stand on right-to-repair, has responded to such problems by expanding its repair network to some 5,000 authorized service providers worldwide, lowered the cost of battery replacement, and simplified screen repair. It has pioneered “Daisy,” a system to robotically disassemble iPhones to recover more parts than traditional shredding methods, and initiated a credit program for customers who give back Apple computers when they no longer use them.

Last year, the company announced its commitment to create new products using only recycled or renewable materials. That commitment is still years away and, to the dismay of right-to-repair advocates, remains a closed loop completely under Apple’s control.

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