Repair to the masses: How companies lock out individuals from the insides of their devices

Image provided by author. Top: Interior of a laptop made by Lenovo (made ~2015).

A person being able to repair and modify something they own seems like something obvious. However, the question of whether it is truly safe or legal to do so has continued, with internal components being seized in customs under trademark law. Companies like John Deere, which manufactures farm equipment such as tractors, has made attempts to prevent repairs and has been using software known as TPMs to prevent farmers and independent repair shops from fixing their own equipment, attempting to push farmers into using their services or approved repair shops. John Deere has also been the focus of other accusations, such as including a remote shutdown switch in their vehicles. 

With multiple class-action lawsuits, and an executive order passed by President Biden in July 2021 protecting the “right to repair,” John Deere has agreed to make concessions. The company signed a memorandum of understanding, saying they will increase the availability of any information, tools, and software that are needed to repair machines made by John Deere.

While many students at Washington High will never have an experience with a tractor, they are much more likely to use a device made by Apple Computer Incorporated. Apple has become infamous for devices that are difficult to service by the end user, with the Public Interest Network giving Apple laptops a D grade and their phones an F grade, coming last in their respective categories. A student at Washington High even notes that Apple products have seemingly become more hostile towards those wishing to repair them. The student stated that they have opened macbooks from 2009, 2015, and 2020. However, they have noticed that the design of the products has changed, noting that they “have replaced and upgraded memory in my old laptop, which is also a MacBook, but I’m not able to do it on my new MacBook.”

Since April of 2022, Apple has launched their own self service repair program, allowing users to rent tools and buy parts for iPhone 12s and later. Repair manuals provided by Apple are also available to the public. However, an independent group has noted that, when they released their findings in July of 2022, that buying official parts and renting tools from Apple costs the same, if not more than in store repair services, even once the warranty expires. A different group also noted that Apple required a serial number to purchase parts, which makes it difficult for third party repair shops to make repairs without having a warning about incompatible parts.

With the trend of restricting repairs continuing, activist groups have started, naming the issue the right to repair. Operating under the website, The Repair Association advocates for protecting the consumer’s ability to repair their devices through legislation, as well as providing information about devices before they are purchased.

The volume of electronics thrown away each year has caused a noticeable environmental impact. A 2019 report estimates 44 million tons of electronic waste was produced in 2017, with less than 20% of that being recycled. With this waste often containing hazardous or rare materials, the effect of this waste has been noticed. The environmentalist organization Greenpeace has historically partnered with the company iFixit in order to assess the difficulty of repairs in devices sold; however, this report is now outdated, being released in 2017.

The efforts of these organizations have shown some effect. While not extensive, with The Repair Association itself stating that only two states have passed bills protecting the right to repair, the movement is seeing attention in state legislatures. On December 29, 2023, the state of New York passed the Digital Fair Repair Act (S4104-A/A7006-B), under hopes to increase competition in the repair market, as well as reducing the amount of electronic waste which ends up in landfills.

Richard Pang is a senior at Washington who was born and raised in Fremont. He is a reporter in his first year with The Hatchet. You might find him looking at aspects of student culture that get overlooked. On his off hours, you can find him organizing events on online platforms or doing some research on whatever topic caught his interest this week. He’s not sure where life will take him or how college will go, but there’s no fun in knowing what will happen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *