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The Right To Repair Is Not For You

Yes, it’s a particularly incendiary title, but I think it deserves to be, particularly as too many people in multiple of my bubbles appear to be at the very least excited if not ecstatic, at the idea of any kind of Right to Repair particularly as applied to electronics. Unfortunately, I have seen very limited space discussing the limitations, and the possible drawbacks, of such a requirement.

First of all, let me address the elephant in the room here: for many, any discussion of Right to Repair has to do with either Apple or John Deere, because those are the most glamorous examples of tech-user-unfriendly companies, purportedly charging tons of money for repairs and stopping independent individuals from going ahead and “fixing” (or more often than not modding) stuff by themselves. I understand the position, but I’m not entirely sure I agree with the view that this is fundamentally user unfriendly, particularly when you consider that Apple’s support for their devices is quite good, despite its cost, and if you’re a clumsy consumer (or one that works in situations where you are particularly at risk) AppleCare is definitely worth its cost. I cannot opine much on John Deere as I don’t work in that particular field, and have no experience dealing with them.

For the vast majority of the population, the problem is not that they cannot repair it themselves – because that is still true after Right to Repair, as they lack the technical expertise and the practicality to do it. The problem is that the big manufacturers (such as the aforementioned Apple and John Deere, but also printer manufacturers, other electronics, white goods, and even clothing and accessories) will only allow you to get repairs through themselves or their authorized resellers, allowing them to set the price. My dentist is not going to find the time to take off the screen on his iMac to replace the onboard memory if it magically were to become non-soldered — he’s going to call his MSP to get it sorted out! And depending on the amount of clients the MSP has, they may decide to just take the computer back for parts and give him a new one.

The likeliness is that, with a strong enough Right to Repair being enforced, we’ll see a further explosion of corner stores repairing cellphones, laptop, TVs, and all the like. This is not necessarily bad! But it would be naïve to not also assume that a significant part of these would be untrustworthy, and should be modelled as adversarial, which means that, instead of patting themselves on the back, I would want technologist to be more like Matthew Garrett and start thinking about how much trust you can provide in hardware that can lie too you too easily.

In general, I do believe there is a positive base to the concept of Right to Repair: I do enjoy the fact that most of our white goods at home are Zanussi (and at least some of them have been in the previous two flats as well), because one of the things Electrolux group does is allowing you to buy basically any spare part from them. I ordered parts for my oven back in Dublin (because the previous tenant had torn the grill apart, how I still wonder!) and more recently in London I managed to buy a number of spare parts for the dishwasher that was sorely mistreated by the previous tenants, including the wheels of the lower basket that just crumbled on me.

Getting wider, easier access to spare parts, service manuals, hey even firmware interfaces would be lovely, for sure. But the dream of all of that being totally free and open to all… sounds very unrealistic to me. It’s very possible that some brands will opt into making those parts available, but for a significant fee, unless you’re an authorized reseller or service center… which is basically the state I remember Italy back in the ’90s. Of course this will likely mean that, uh, secondary markets will arise for service manual and firmware files, for instance. And while manufacturing of spare parts for electronics is not something you can do at home, I wouldn’t be surprised if for the more failure prone mechanical parts we’ll see some makers or related communities acquire the parts once and provide easily reproducible plans for them to be 3D printed and similar — after all we already have that without the right to repair.

And if you’re among those who are welcoming the return of the user-replaceable battery, even hoping for one of those pie-in-the-sky modular phone designs… well, I will straight-out admit that it scares the heck out of me. While batteries are indeed the weakest point in any portable electronic at this point in time, I expect that letting users replace them will lead for the most part to a lot of bad AmazExpress quality batteries that either over-promise on their capacity, or are possibly unsafe (remember the Samsung Note 7?) And that’s without getting me started on the terrible idea of most modular phone designs that have no feasibility in either hardware or software (that one can be a rant for another time.)

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy having access to a good hardware store and I don’t fear household wiring even though I have to say I’m scared by how much I learnt about the mistakes I made back in the days when I had nobody to turn around to ask for advice. I still do the odd re-wiring now and then, particularly if converting a plug from British to European and vice-versa – or like it happened the day I’m writing this, to change the floor-lamp switch at my mother-in-law’s because the old one stopped making good contact, and thankfully the store next door happened to have a good two-pole switch I could replace the old silly single-pole switch with.

What I’m trying to say is that in addition to have the right to repair, you need to have the skills and knowledge to do it. You don’t want the electrical equivalent of the five minutes fix with the risk of burning down a house. You don’t want to have your, or others’, lives depend on you knowing exactly what to do to repair your car — you want it be possible that someone else but the manufacturer can do it, so that there’s market pressure for the prices to stay reasonable, but you also want to make sure those doing it are doing a good job.

Unfortunately, this is an unsolved problem particularly when computers and electronics are involved. As I said a long time ago, there’s an ethical component to take into consideration when selling routers which I know most people, not just MSPs, don’t always remember about. In addition to this, most people frown on the idea that only established, certified professionals should be allowed to install routers, boilers, plugs, and so on. But the thing is that much as it looks easy and safe when you do know how to do it, the majority of people don’t know how to do it!

So, let’s welcome regulation that forces manufacturers to make things repairable (not necessarily by the final consumer) and hopefully a new crop of businesses whose mission is to build up the skills and knowledge to both repair and assess when a repair would be a waste of money and energy (in all forms) for the owner — because sometimes, it is, and it’s hard for most people to notice.

Comments 2
  1. how about we start with manufacturers not actively sabotaging the repair efforts?

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