Last month, a customer brought her 2018 Macbook Air into West Seattle Computers. She had spilled water on it. Technicians took the machine apart, isolated the broken part, and found a potentially easy fix; a power port. The problem was finding a replacement.
“We can’t get parts directly from Apple,” says owner Eric Tishkoff, explaining that the company refuses to sell to independent shops like his. He couldn’t find a new one anywhere else either. “We just had to hand back the machine and say I’m really sorry.”
Tishkoff thinks he could have made the repair for a couple hundred dollars. Apple, he estimated, would charge anywhere from about $800 to $1200. The customer agreed, and decided to wait and see if the part surfaces on the secondary market down the road. In the meantime, she bought a brand new computer from Apple.
Shops and customers across the country face similar problems every day, and not just with Apple products. Microsoft’s Surface tablets are glued so tightly that “you basically have to break it” to fix it, says one technician, which makes repairs costly. Asus is another computer maker that refuses to sell parts, says Tishkoff. (Asus did not respond to multiple requests to comment.) He added that some manufacturers even make it hard to find the manuals necessary to make a fix.
When it comes to enabling third-party repairs, manufacturers “don’t have the economic incentive,” he says. “The system encourages people to throw [electronics] away and replace them.”
But pushback has been rapidly increasing. Advocates for the “right to repair” are trying to force manufacturers to make their products more repairable, and improve third-party access to critical tools, parts, and information. Even farmers are fighting John Deere for the ability to repair tractors.
“As people find out they’re really getting screwed, they get mad,” said Gay Gordon-Byrne, the executive director of the Repair Association, which is helping to spearhead the push. “We’ve been growing really strongly.”
This year, a right to repair bills have been introduced in a record 20 states. This state-level strategy, Gordon-Byrne says, is drawn from an earlier war that independent auto shops waged against car companies — and won.
Turning off the check engine light
Barry Steinberg owns Direct Tire and Auto Repair, a chain of four car-shops dotted across Massachusetts. The 1990s, he says, saw a sea change for mechanics. As cars became increasingly complicated and computerized, manufacturers stopped giving them the information or tools they needed to make fixes.
He remembers one repair manual that came with pages intentionally removed. Companies were also making vehicles’ computers difficult to interact with, to the point that he couldn’t replace even minor parts, such as window switches. Perhaps the most troublesome issue, though, was the check engine light.
“I couldn’t diagnose the check engine light,” he said, or turn it off after a repair. “They weren’t really giving us all the information. We were in a precarious position because we couldn’t fix your car.”
Customers who had been with Steinberg’s family for decades were instead forced to go to a dealer — where appointments can be scarce and prices significantly higher. By the early 2000s, independent shops like Steinberg’s were demanding their “right to repair.”
After legislative attempts stalled at the federal level, the fight came to a head in Massachusetts. Steinberg and his colleagues testified to state legislators, and even a host of the NPR show Car Talk — who operated an independent shop for years — pitched in to promote the bill.
In 2012, the proposal was finally put to a statewide referendum, where 86 percent of residents approved it. It was one of the largest margins in state history. To keep the momentum from spreading, manufacturers negotiated a memorandum of understanding with repair shops nationwide.
“The MOU was largely based on the Massachusetts legislation,” said Aaron Lowe, with the Auto Care Association — a trade group that represents independent shops and was a signatory to the agreement. Hashing out the state-level bill, he said, was actually the hardest part. “That was a very challenging negotiation.”
Steinberg says the battle has been worth it. “We’re working on a lot of cars now that we wouldn’t have been,” he said, looking a Porsche Panamera that he would have had to turn away a decade ago. “It’s a gorgeous car.”
From cars to computers
Seeing the success, advocates for the digital right to repair followed the automotive movement’s lead.
”The first draft of that template legislation was an adaptation of what they did for cars,” said Nathan Proctor, the director of the Right to Repair Campaign for US PIRG, a consumer advocacy organization. “Just take out the part where it said cars, and put in anything that has a microprocessor in it.”
The first digital right-to-repair bill was introduced in South Dakota in 2014, and the movement has steadily expanded, state by state. In 2015, four states debated bills, last year it was 18. In 2019, lawmakers in 20 states have introduced bills.
“We haven’t yet had a victory, but we’ve been close”, said Gay Gordon-Bryne, noting that proposals in New York and Massachusetts seem most likely to become law. A large part of the delay, she says, is because of the “aggressive” resistance from industry. “Apple has been the most vocal in opposition.”
In California, Apple successfully urged lawmakers in California to abandon right-to-repair legislation, arguing that customers could hurt themselves by doing their own iPhone repairs. The company also hired lobbyists in New York, and testified in Nebraska, among other efforts to resist the movement. “Our goal in working with lawmakers is to ensure customer safety, privacy and product quality,” said Apple, which recently announced repair-partnership with the big-box retailer Best Buy. “We want to make sure our customers always have confidence their products will be repaired safely and correctly, and in a way that supports recycling.” The company also pointed to their Apple Authorized Service Provider program, which they report includes more than 1,800 third-party technical providers. Of those, “nearly 1,000” are Best Buys.
Apple’s not alone in their opposition to the Right to Repair movement. This year in Washington, a right-to-repair bill moved through committee but got stopped before it reached the floor. Microsoft, which is one of the state’s largest employers, was reportedly involved in efforts to keep it from passing. “We are working with our industry partners to provide repair options that ensure the quality of repairs,” said a Microsoft spokesperson, declining to elaborate on details.
Given this intense opposition to independent repairs, not all shop owners are convinced that right to repair can bring about tangible progress. “There are too many ways to make things hard,” said Craig Baker, who owns the TopTech repair shop in Virginia; another state that has seen right-to-repair bills stalled. “There’s no power on the planet that’s going to make it easier to do this because the manufacturers aren’t going to cooperate.”
The fear is not unfounded. Critics point to companies who tell customers that their warranties will be void if they use third-party parts or services; despite the practice being illegal under the 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. Planned obsolescence — where companies intentionally make their products less durable to encourage replacement — is another area of concern.
Independent auto shops have already had to re-open negotiations over their right-to-repair agreement because they say car manufacturers were exploiting loopholes in the deal, and finding new ways to make repairs expensive.
Still, Eric Tishkoff, in Seattle, is optimistic that there can be meaningful change. He’s particularly excited by the possibility of better access to parts, which he says would allow him to say yes to just about every project that walks into his shop.
“Consumers would have far more choice,” he explained, adding that that would likely lead to lower prices, more repairs, and machines that live longer. Such a shift, he says, would benefit both the environment and customers. Not to mention his shop. “I’d love to see right to repair go through in Washington state and everywhere.”
Update: Additional information was added to this story concerning Apple’s third party service provider program.
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