My Turn: Right to Repair a commonsense idea

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Published: 4/10/2022 7:01:13 PM
Modified: 4/10/2022 7:00:02 PM

“Either we get Right to Repair laws on the books, or businesses like mine will be gone.” 

Most of us have broken the screen on our phone at some point. Repairing these screens should be something manufacturers make easy for their customers. 

Last fall, after Apple debuted its new iPhone 13, technicians discovered that the phone would disable the popular Face ID feature if someone unauthorized by Apple repaired the screen. Making matters worse, Apple refuses to sell replacement screens or make its repair software available to local independent shops. And that has shops worried. 

Tyler Alderman has been fixing devices in western Massachusetts for more than two years now. Like most shop owners, Apple won’t sell him spare parts, or provide access to software tools necessary to calibrate FaceID after a repair.

“The number of colleagues and fellow shop owners that I personally know who won’t do specific repairs because of bad experiences with purchasing bad parts is staggering,” said Alderman. “Not only that, the lack of access to repair is preventing a lot of families from having access to the internet and the world at large.”

After backlash from the public, Apple released a software update that rolled back its Face ID lock out in the case of screen repair. But without legislation protecting the right to repair, there is nothing stopping Apple from reversing course and remotely updating phones to lock out repairs once again. 

When manufacturers or their brand-authorized shops are the only choice for repair, they can charge an arm and leg, or push you into constantly upgrading to their newest model — whether or not your phone has plenty of life left. 

Make, use, toss and repeat. It’s a system that works great if you sell new things … but it’s expensive for consumers and devastating to the planet. We are going through electronic devices at record-breaking rates, and e-waste is the fastest growing part of the U.S. municipal waste stream. 

“I know several fellow students who had to use their own limited resources in the middle of the semester to buy an entirely new laptop simply because a tiny implement malfunctioned and a replacement part wasn’t available.” Said Chris Dryer, a local resident and repair enthusiast.

Not only do Massachusetts residents replace some 8,000 cell phones a day, MASSPIRG calculated that if Bay Staters used their cell phones for one year longer on average, it would have climate benefits equivalent to taking 13,300 cars off the road. Additionally we estimate that repairing instead of replacing our electronics would save the average Massachusetts family $330 per year, which totals more than $850 million for all families in the state. 

We can turn that system around by giving people what they need to fix what they already have. That’s the goal of the Right to Repair measure Senate Bill 166, pending right now in Boston. The proposed reforms would require manufacturers to sell parts and tools, and make service manuals available to prevent a monopoly on repairs. 

But if we want to preserve the repair shops we have now on our Main streets, we need to stop waiting and pass Right to Repair this year.

We’ve been debating Right to Repair rules for many years. Proponents argue that these reforms would help local small businesses, cut waste and reliance on manufacturing and the supply chain, and save consumers money. 

Opponents, including many large tech manufacturers, have claimed that a monopoly on repair access benefits consumers because only “authorized” repair is safe or of sufficient quality. Essentially, they argue that consumers can’t choose for themselves who to trust for repairs. 

For two years, experts at the Federal Trade Commission studied the issue and considered the arguments for and against Right to Repair. They released a landmark report last May, it found that there was “scant evidence” to support manufacturers justifications for restricting repair, but that repair monopolies considerably harmed consumers, small businesses and the environment. 

“I love fixing stuff for my community and I know what I’m doing. Regularly, people come to me, obviously in distress, just having been told by the ‘authorized’ repair shop that their device is unfixable and they need an upgrade. Oftentimes, I get them back up and running — sometimes the unfixable device just has lint in the charge port,” added Alderman. “But if lawmakers don’t do anything, I won’t be able to hold out under siege from the Apples of the world. If that happens, when the big guys tell you the device is done for, there will be no second opinion.” 

At this point, we’ve gone through all the arguments; a two-year FTC investigation is, frankly, overkill for an idea which is bipartisan and common-sense. If we want repair shops to take our gadgets to, we need lawmakers to act and advance The Digital Right to Repair Act. If you agree, you should let your lawmakers know. 

Ben Rowley has been working with MassPirg around the state on the Right to Repair campaign. 


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