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The right-to-repair movement is just getting started

Originally posted on theverge.

Apple stunned the world when it came out in support of California’s right-to-repair law. But software locks and other obstacles seem to signal that the fight is far from over.

Several months back, Apple refurbisher John Bumstead received a batch of about 20 MacBooks from an e-waste recycler. Bumstead, who routinely refurbishes MacBooks that are more than 10 years old, shouldn’t have had a problem salvaging these computers, the oldest of which were from 2018. But only half of them were fully restorable.

Five of the MacBooks were “activation locked,” meaning the prior owner had forgotten to wipe the device and nobody else could reactivate it. Another five had broken screens that would lose True Tone unless Bumstead replaced them with expensive new screens from Apple, something that would have eaten up most of the revenue he could earn refurbishing them.

Bumstead’s experience was far from unique. Today, people who repair and refurbish Apple devices are encountering a growing number of software barriers that prevent them from repairing those devices, even if the hardware is in good condition. That’s why this community of fixers, and the broader public, was so stunned when, in August, Apple came out in support of a right-to-repair bill in its home state of California.

Signed into law last month by Governor Gavin Newsom, the Right to Repair Act guarantees everyone access to parts, tools, and manuals needed to fix their electronic devices — something industry-backed research shows can reduce both waste and carbon emissions but which Apple, the world’s most valuable company, has aggressively lobbied against for years. At a recent White House event, Apple even pledged to honor California’s new law nationwide.

But if independent repair professionals were hopeful that Apple’s dramatic about-face would signal a change in how it designs its products, that hope was short-lived. In September, Apple rolled out a new iPhone that appears impossible to fully repair without the manufacturer’s blessing — and without paying Apple money.

As device detectives at repair guide site iFixit.com soon discovered, the iPhone 15 is riddled with software locks that cause warning messages to pop up or functionality to be lost if parts are replaced with new ones that weren’t purchased directly from Apple.

The stark contrast between what Apple now professes to believe — that repairing devices is good for consumers’ pocketbooks and the planet — and its decision to discourage unsanctioned fixes by pairing specific parts to specific devices, highlights a sobering reality right-to-repair activists are now confronting: despite a recent string of hard-won victories, the fight for affordable, accessible, and universal access to repair is far from over. Following years of pressure from consumers, shareholders, activists, and regulators, tech companies are finally cracking open the door to repair. But unless these corporations are forced to do more, our devices will continue to die early deaths because they are difficult to disassemble, the manufacturer stops offering software support, or the only way to make them work again is to purchase pricey replacement parts from the original device maker.

As long as repair is costly and complicated, it “will remain something only some people that are motivated by environmental reasons will choose,” Ugo Vallauri, a co-director of The Restart Project, a UK-based community repair organization, and founding member of Right to Repair Europe, saidMany others will choose to replace their broken devices with new ones, resulting in more destructive mining, more planet-heating carbon pollution emitted during manufacturing and shipping, and more electronic waste piling up in landfills. The European Union estimates that prematurely discarded products cause 35 million metric tons of waste and 261 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year within its borders alone.

Despite the environmental benefits of increased repair access, some of the world’s biggest tech companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet, Meta, and Tesla, have spent millions convincing lawmakers not to support it. Manufacturers cite a range of reasons for their opposition: right to repair will infringe on their intellectual property rights; consumers will injure themselves fixing their stuff; independent repair will lead to more hacking; and shoddy repairs will damage companies’ reputations. John Deere has even claimed that greater repair access will allow farmers to tamper with the emissions controls on their tractors in violation of the Clean Air Act — a notion the Environmental Protection Agency recently refuted.

Repair advocates contend that these arguments are baseless and that the real reason manufacturers oppose repair access is because it hurts their bottom line. Lawmakers and regulators are beginning to agree. In May 2021, the Federal Trade Commission published a report that found “scant evidence” to back up manufacturers’ anti-repair claims. Several months later, President Biden directed the FTC to explore new regulations that would limit manufacturers’ ability to restrict independent repair for profit. Repair bills started gaining more traction in statehouses around the country.

Shortly thereafter, device makers started changing their tune on the issue, announcing a slew of new initiatives aimed at promoting independent repair. In the spring of 2022, Apple launched its first self-repair program, Samsung and Google announced partnerships with iFixit aimed at promoting repair, and Microsoft, at the behest of its shareholdersreleased a study concluding that repair has significant environmental benefits. Advocates believe that tech giants realized they were on the losing side of the repair fight and that by making some concessions, they could keep a seat at the negotiating table in order to shape future regulations.

California’s new right-to-repair law, along with similar laws enacted by Minnesota and New York earlier this year, are the most prominent result of the shift in public and corporate attitudes toward repair. The laws aim to start chipping away at the environmental toll of our throwaway culture by ensuring it’s at least theoretically possible to fix many devices.

These laws require that manufacturers make spare parts, tools, and repair information available to independent shops and the public for a set period of time after a device is no longer sold on the market. California’s bill, considered the strongest yet, mandates three years of spare parts and information for devices that cost between $50 and $99 and seven years of support for devices costing $100 or more.

The passage of three electronics right-to-repair laws in a single year — in addition to new state laws covering farm equipment and wheelchairs — is “huge,” Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the repair advocacy organization Repair.org, said. “We’ve been waiting for the dam to burst, and the dam burst,” she said.

That said, these laws have some key limitations.

Due to industry pressure, Gordon-Byrne said, the laws in California and Minnesota only apply to products sold from mid-2021 onward, while New York’s law applies to products sold starting in mid-2023. This means the laws won’t help consumers fix older devices, which are more likely to need repairs sooner. Each bill also excludes various categories of devices, including gaming consoles, medical devices, business computers, and e-bikes, depending on the state.

Finally, the aim of these laws is not to remove all barriers to independent repair but to level the playing field between manufacturers, their authorized repair partners, and everyone else. Manufacturers must make the spare parts they use in their own repair networks available on “fair and reasonable terms,” but the laws don’t dictate that parts must be affordable for the average consumer. (The out-of-warranty cost of recent iPhone screen replacements at the Apple Store is very similar to Apple’s self-repair store and higher than many aftermarket parts.) And if a manufacturer doesn’t offer any spare parts at all, they are under no obligation to start. “We’re going to have to tackle that” loophole in future legislation, iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens said. “You shouldn’t be able to sell a product without selling service parts and writing a repair manual.”

Meanwhile, there are a host of repair roadblocks that rules focused on fostering market competition aren’t built to address. These include design choices that make products physically hard to open up, take apart, and put back together.

For instance, since 2016, Apple has welded most of the solid-state drives in its MacBooks directly to the logic board, meaning they can’t be removed and replaced without some serious soldering chops. Beyond hampering consumers’ efforts to recover their data or replace a dead drive, the design choice is “absolutely devastating” for refurbishers, said Bumstead, the Apple refurbisher. E-waste recyclers, Bumstead said, used to be able to pull the drive off the board in order to securely destroy the data before selling the device to refurbishers. Now, in order to comply with the data destruction requirements set by private certifiers, recyclers will often shred the entire board, a much costlier and more resource-intensive component.

“I’ve been offered thousands of three-year-old M1 Macs, they’ll tell me they’re perfectly good machines [but] they just need a board,” Bumstead said.

Apple has come under fire for other repair-hostile design choices. Over the years, many of its devices used “pentalobe”-shaped screws, which were once very hard to find screwdrivers for and featured glued-in batteries that are difficult, if not impossible, to replace.

And it’s hardly the only gadget maker whose tech is hard to take apart: a repair report card released last year by the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) gave Samsung and Google Pixel smartphones failing grades for ease of disassembly, while Lenovo, Microsoft, and HP laptops received poor to middling marks. By contrast, Dell laptops, which often set the industry standard for repairability, received an “A” for ease of disassembly. US PIRG’s scores drew on France’s repairability index, which considers the number of steps required to take devices apart, the types of tools needed, and whether fasteners are removable and reusable.

Another major barrier to maintaining older devices is software support. Once a manufacturer stops offering software updates, issuing security patches, or powering the servers our gadgets rely on, our products can become obsolete. Smart home devices, whose functionality is tied to remote servers beyond the customer’s control, are particularly vulnerable in this regard. Wiens pointed to Nest’s decision to disable the Revolv smart home hub in 2016 and the demise of the company that made the SmartDry laundry sensor last year as examples of how manufacturers can turn expensive pieces of hardware into useless bricks by dropping software support.

Poor designs and lack of software updates make repairing and maintaining our devices more difficult. But committed fixers will often find ways to take apart the most repair-challenged gadgets or upgrade old machines with third-party software patches. By contrast, many in the DIY repair world fear that the software locks companies are now using to pair replacement components with specific devices could spell “game over” for independent repair. “This is the existential threat,” Wiens said.

Parts pairing refers to how manufacturers tie device functionality to the purchase and use of their in-house parts, tools, and service. Ten to 15 years ago, when a component broke down, it could almost always be replaced with any compatible replacement part. But paired parts have built-in microcontrollers that are programmed to communicate with the main board to authenticate the replacement. If that software handshake doesn’t occur — say, because the repairer used an aftermarket part or didn’t have access to proprietary pairing software — the device might throw up a warning message, or it might cease to function altogether.

Parts pairing flies in the face of how refurbishers do business: by harvesting working components from dead devices and using them to restore other devices to good-as-new condition. “It’s a very big threat on refurbishment, and the cost of repair in refurbishment, that we need to address,” Marie Castelli, head of public affairs at the online refurbished device store Back Market, said.

For several years, iFixit has tracked Apple’s use of parts pairing by swapping parts between new devices of the same model to see what works and what doesn’t. The problem is clearly getting worse, Wiens said, noting that the iPhone 15 appears to be Apple’s most software-locked phone yet. Tests on a 15 Pro Max revealed that swapping the screen without using Apple’s System Configuration tool causes Face ID, True Tone, and auto brightness to stop working, while swapping the battery causes a non-genuine part warning message to appear, and the phone stops displaying battery health data. All of these software locks appeared in earlier iPhones, too. But the 15 Pro Max’s rear lidar assembly, essential for using augmented reality apps, also doesn’t function when transplanted into a new phone, iFixit found.

Apple didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment from The Verge.

iFixit has documented similar examples of parts pairing in MacBooks and iPads. And once again, Apple is hardly the only offender here: Wiens pointed out that Husqvarna chainsaws require a dealer to authenticate the firmware on new parts; Xbox and PlayStation disc drives are paired with the motherboard; and replacement car parts are increasingly “VIN locked,” or paired to a specific car’s serial number. Printers are another poster child for software locks, with some companies tying a printer’s ability to print to the purchase and use of proprietary ink cartridges. A recent report by US PIRG found that Americans could save 4 million single-use grocery bags’ worth of plastic a year by using ink cartridges that were recycled and refilled — if only manufacturers would allow it.

While today’s high-tech barriers to repair are daunting, advocates are hard at work pressing lawmakers and regulators to tear them down. In both the US and Europe, a suite of new rules could start to unwind manufacturers’ stranglehold over what repairs are possible and with whose parts.

In August, the EU rolled out a first-of-its-kind “ecodesign” regulation for smartphones and tablets. By June 2025, manufacturers of these devices will be required to meet strict durability and repairability requirements, including furnishing spare parts and repair information for at least seven years. Parts should be easily replaceable, and device makers must provide software updates for at least five years after their devices are last sold in the EU. Vallauri, of The Restart Project, noted that shortly after the new rules went into effect, Google announced it would be providing an industry-leading seven years of software updates for its latest Pixel smartphones, demonstrating that this level of support “was possible” all along.

Google spokesperson Matthew Flegal declined to say whether the company’s decision to extend software support as well as hardware support and replacement parts for its newest phones was influenced by this regulation but said that the main reason “is because it’s important to our customers.”

The EU also just passed a new battery regulation that covers many aspects of lithium-ion battery sustainability, including repair. Per the new rules, nearly all portable electronic batteries will have to be user-replaceable starting in 2027. While key details of the regulation are still being hammered out, including which devices will be exempt because they are routinely in contact with water, Vallauri expects the regulation will have “a big impact” on product design, making many devices “easier to disassemble.”

Still, advocates say that the new EU rules ignore key challenges, like the high cost of repair and the impact of parts pairing. (The new ecodesign rules for smartphones and tablets explicitly allow manufacturers to pair parts as long as they provide independent repairers “non-discriminatory access” to software and firmware tools, a proposition advocates are deeply skeptical of.) With the European Parliament currently weighing another new regulation aimed at making repair more attractive to consumers, advocates are pressing EU lawmakers to take a more aggressive stance on these issues, including calling for a full ban on parts pairing.

In the US, repair advocates are also setting their sights on more ambitious rules and regulations following their recent legislative victories. Gordon-Byrne says she expects to see other states follow in California’s footsteps and pass their own right-to-repair bills in the years to come. “We’re trying to make sure every ‘me too’ includes something that pushes the envelope,” Gordon-Byrne said.

That could mean coverage for devices that were exempted from the recent laws, expanded software support over the long term, or restrictions on parts pairing. (Minnesota’s law includes language that should ban the practice, but with California’s law overshadowing it, it remains to be seen whether corporations will comply, Gordon-Byrne said.) Nathan Proctor, who directs the right-to-repair campaign at US PIRG, said that his organization is “talking to repair techs to find out what they need and then working to make sure our legislative solutions address these needs.”

As more states pass their own laws, support for a national right to repair is growing. At a White House right-to-repair event in October, the Biden administration called on Congress to pass a right-to-repair law. So did Apple vice president Brian Naumann, who told audience members that the company believes “consumers and businesses would benefit from a national law” modeled after the California bill.

While EU-style design mandates may be a harder sell in the US, forcing manufacturers to disclose the repairability of their products could encourage them to adopt better designs, an approach France pioneered when it launched its repairability index in 2021. Lucas Gutterman, who directs the “Designed to Last” campaign at US PIRG, described repairability scores as a way to foster “transparency and market competition.”

“If we just have transparency in the marketplace… we’ll have a race to the top where manufacturers are just designing products to be more and more repairable,” Gutterman said. US PIRG is calling on the Federal Trade Commission to develop voluntary repair score criteria that states or companies can use, similar to the federal Energy Star labeling program that encourages manufacturers to improve device efficiency.

Clearly, the right-to-repair movement has its work cut out in the years to come. But while pushing the world’s most powerful companies to change their business practices is never easy, right to repair has one advantage over other environmental causes, which often feel a step removed from daily life: it promises to help eliminate the needless repair ordeals that are a joyless fact of modern existence.

Jessa Jones, the founder of iPad Rehab, an independent repair and data recovery business based near Rochester, New York, recalled a recent experience one of her employees had replacing four short-circuited data storage chips on the logic board of a MacBook that had experienced water damage. He had to go on an “Easter egg hunt,” Jones said, to find four replacement chips that matched those in the specific MacBook he was working on, unsolder the old chips and solder the new ones on, then buy a third-party Chinese program to program the chips so the device could communicate with them.

“That MacBook is currently back in service,” Jones said. “But that is the insane level of effort now required to do something every teen with a screwdriver has been able to do in their basement.”

Source: theverge