Why is the “right to repair” gadgets and machines spreading?

IT WAS QUITE the volte-face. On November 17th Apple announced that it would give those customers “who are comfortable with completing their own repairs” access to specialised tools and parts to fix their broken iPhones. Right up until its announcement the firm had been vigorously defending its long-standing policy of only allowing its technicians, or licensed workshops, to tinker with its products. In the past it has even disabled iPhones that had been repaired by other means. To start with, Apple’s new policy will apply only to certain repairs, such as cracked screens and flat batteries in its latest models—and only for customers in America. But the firm says it will roll out the scheme to more products and countries in future.

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Apple’s change of heart is being seen as a victory for a growing “right to repair” movement. Around the world, organisations such as The Repair Association, an American advocacy group, are fighting manufacturers’ tendencies to bar people from fixing their own goods, whether smart gadgets, cars or washing machines. Carmakers are coming under increasing pressure. John Deere, a tractor manufacturer, is embroiled in a long-running row with farmers, many of whom have downloaded hacked software for their vehicles so that they can make repairs without going through a costly authorised dealership. Right to repair is a popular cause. A YouGov survey carried out last month, for example, found that 81% of Britons would support the expansion of right-to-repair legislation to include smartphones, tablets and laptops (it already covers things such as white goods and televisions). Politicians seem to be on board too. Twenty-seven American states are considering right-to-repair legislation, according to the US Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG), a lobby group, although none has yet passed into law. The European Parliament recently voted to beef up regulation in the EU, so that certain new electrical goods will need to be repairable for at least ten years.

The pandemic seems to have added urgency to the cause. Under lockdown, not only did people splurge more on gadgets, but many found their local dealers closed when those devices needed fixing. On occasion proprietary servicing became a matter of life and death. According to US PIRG, hospital technicians became exasperated when they found they could not quickly fix ventilators in overflowing intensive-care units because they did not have immediate access to manuals and parts. This prompted several manufacturers, such as GE, to make more service materials freely available.

The arguments for allowing greater right-to-repair are compelling. The first is a sense of moral justice. As The Repair Association’s slogan puts it, “We have the right to repair everything we own.” The second is to stop price-gouging. One reason firms are so keen to maintain a monopoly on fixing the items they produce is that they can charge inflated prices for parts and labour (Apple has not yet said how much repair tools for iPhones will cost). That in turn feeds so-called planned obsolescence. When the cost of changing a worn-out smartphone battery is a high proportion of the price of buying a new device, consumers are inevitably nudged towards the latter. In the YouGov survey, a quarter of respondents said they had thrown away their last gadget without trying to repair it. That is good for firms, but bad for the environment. Apple says that 80% of its emissions come from the manufacturing process. It is this last appeal to greater sustainability—alongside the threat of legislation—that appears to be convincing firms to play ball. Despite all this, consumers may still find self-repair difficult. From Teslas to tractors, doorbells to dishwashers, goods are becoming more complicated, stuffed with more computer chips than cogs. Anybody lacking an insider’s knowledge of the code that makes such gadgets tick, may still find themselves locked out.

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