When your iPhone or Android phone dies or goes on the fritz, do you buy a new phone?
If you do, that’s exactly what smartphone manufacturers want you to do — and that’s why they make it so hard for you to fix your phone yourself.
Manufacturers like Apple, Google, Samsung and others say you’re not allowed to fix your phone yourself because (for example) if you change your phone battery incorrectly, you could blow up yourself and a whole bus full of people.
Instead, Apple and other manufacturers want you to either take your broken phone to one of their own licensed professionals — where you’ll pay an arm and a leg just to get it working again — or just buy a new, thousand-dollar phone.
Most people buy a new phone.
But consumers are fed up with the status quo, and now 20 states are looking at bills that would grant consumers the “right to repair” anything from their smartphones to their farming equipment.
2020 presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both list Right-to-Repair laws as part of their platforms, and the Trump administration’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) hosted a workshop over the summer to discuss Right-to-Repair solutions for consumers.
“The FTC didn’t question IF repair is being monopolized — they asked why [manufacturers] were so determined to monopolize and what they should do about it,” the Repair Association said after the workshop.
Kay-Kay Clapp, director of communications at iFixit, an online community and advocacy group that shares guides, tips and tricks for repairing smartphones, laptops and cameras among other devices, said there’s been a huge surge in the Right-to-Repair movement over the last two years.
In 2017, only 12 states were exploring Right-to-Repair laws. Now there are 20.
“This is really a bipartisan issue, everybody wants to fix their stuff. A lot of folks are used to having a repair manual shipped with their devices,” Clapp told InsideSources.
The concept behind Right-to-Repair really began in 2012, when Massachusetts passed a law granting car owners the right to repair their cars. Every other state followed suit, but now consumers want the right to repair their phones and their tractors.
“Farmers rely on their equipment and if it breaks they have to fix it really quickly, and because of the law, they have to go to John Deere, the manufacturer,” Clapp said. “And they don’t have the diagnostic access to fix their equipment themselves. It’s very similar with your smartphone. Consumers don’t have access to the OEM parts, tools and software that manufactures do.”
Because smartphone manufacturers don’t make phone parts and user manuals accessible to anyone outside the company, it’s extremely difficult — almost impossible — for a consumer to fix her phone without going directly to Apple or Google.
Clapp thinks if states codify Right-to-Repair, the repair industry will rapidly expand, resulting in more new jobs within the service economy.
Consumer Reports, a consumer advocacy group, argues that Right-to-Repair laws would not only help consumers, but also small businesses who don’t have time or the profit margins to ship electronic equipment like phones or laptops to the manufacturer for repairs. For many small businesses, losing that time and money hurts their business.
Because repairs are so costly and inconvenient, most consumers just throw away their phones instead of fixing them, which allows smartphone manufacturers to sell more phones and keep revenue streams flowing while simultaneously creating more waste and less cost efficiency for consumers.
Some electronics manufacturers try to stop independent repairs by revoking consumers’ warranties if they use other parts or repair services other than the manufacturer’s. But in 2018, the FTC issued a warning to electronics manufacturers that conditional warranties based on consumers’ use of non-branded parts or independent repairs is illegal.
The independent repair industry is also growing rapidly, so now manufacturers are lobbying states to drop Right-to-Repair bills, according to reports from Pew Charitable Trusts and Motherboard.
“Pretty much every major smartphone maker is lobbying against these bills,” Clapp said.
Just this week, the New Hampshire Assembly sent a Right-to-Repair bill back to the drawing board. In an op-ed for the New Hampshire Business Review, the executive director of a tech trade association decried Right-to-Repair as “dangerous” and argued that manufacturers only want consumers to be “safe.”
“Repairing today’s consumer electronics is a very complex issue,” the Security Innovation Center’s Dusty Brighton wrote. “Manufacturers have created a system of checks and balances that enables consumers to have their products fixed while also knowing technicians are being held accountable. As New Hampshire legislators examine the repair issue, we strongly caution policymakers to resist unwarranted intervention with mandates that compromise consumer privacy, safety and security.”
Josh Zecher, of the Security Innovation Center, told InsideSources in an email that manufacturers worry that Right-to-Repair adds more risk to the repair process.
“This is a complex issue that extends far beyond the stated intent of the legislation to provide access to parts, tools, technical manuals, and software,” he said. “There is absolutely nothing in the proposed legislation that makes consumers more safer or secure – or even holds independent repairers accountable.”
To appease the movement, Apple recently launched a repair program that grants a limited number of independent repair shops access to Apple parts, diagnostics and manuals.
“That was a huge concession on Apple’s part,” Clapp said, but they can still control who gets into the program and can “charge whatever they want.”
Editor’s Note: This piece was updated at 8:30 a.m. October 25 to include comments from Josh Zecher of the Security Innovation Center.