Right-To-Repair Laws Gain Steam In State Legislatures

12:17 minutes

A man holds in his hand an iphone 6S of Apple Inc. whose screen is broken as a result of a violent fall
Credit: Shutterstock

If you have a problem with your phone, like a bad battery or a cracked screen, you might decide to just buy a new one. That’s partly because we don’t have a lot of options to repair our devices: Manufacturers can make it extraordinarily difficult—or expensive—to do so.

But for years now, the right-to-repair movement in the US has been pushing for legislation that forces companies to provide consumers with more options to fix the products they actually own, instead of having to go through manufacturers to get them fixed.

And in the past year, multiple states, including California, New York, Minnesota, and Oregon, have adopted such laws. Companies like Apple and John Deere have been fighting these kinds of measures for years.

Guest host Arielle Duhaime-Ross speaks to Jason Koebler, co-host of the 404 Media podcast, about the growing adoption of legislation, why companies have been lobbying against it, and what he thinks the future of the movement is.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Jason Koebler

Jason Koebler is the co-founder of 404 Media and co-host of the 404 Media podcast. He’s based in Los Angeles, California.

Segment Transcript

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: This is Science Friday. I’m Arielle Duhaime-Ross, filling in for Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll explore why Native communities are trying to take back control of their own data. And we’ll find out how a beloved bird’s call became a go-to sample in pop music. But first, if you have a problem with your phone, like a bad battery or a broken screen, you might decide to just buy a new one completely, because fixing these devices can be really complicated.

I’ve paid to have Apple replace a broken screen on my phone that I dropped while cycling. I’ve even paid to have them replace a battery after a single year of owning my phone because I’d seen a significant drop in performance. Now, they said it wasn’t bad enough to fix, but I disagree.

And every time this stuff has happened, I’d wished I’d done it more easily and more cheaply myself. But when it comes to repairing electronics and other machines, we often don’t have those kinds of options, partially because the manufacturer can make it extraordinarily difficult or expensive to do so. But for years now, the right to repair movement in the US has been pushing for legislation that forces companies to provide consumers with more options to fix the products they own instead of having to go through the manufacturer to fix it for them.

Here to break down recent developments in the right to repair movement is Jason Koebler, co-host of the 404 Media podcast, where he covers a number of issues in tech, including right to repair. Jason, welcome back to Science Friday.

JASON KOEBLER: Hey, thanks for having me.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Thanks for being here. How would you define right to repair

JASON KOEBLER: Well, I think it’s this very American idea that when you buy something, you own it, and you should have the ability to fix it if it breaks. The example that right to repair advocates often talk about is trucks and cars. It’s like, you can change your own oil, you can change your own brakes, and that should apply to your laptop, to your refrigerator, to your phone. If the screen breaks, you should be able to fix it. But for years, it’s been pretty difficult to do that.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: There’s also an environmental aspect to this too, right?

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah. The absolute best thing that you can do for the environment is to keep your devices for longer. If you’re buying a new iPhone every year, that is not great for the environment. Like, the mining of the materials, the manufacturing, the shipping of the materials, that is all very bad for the environment. But if you’re able to keep a device for longer, say three, four, five years, you’re doing an exponentially good thing for the environment because you’re preventing those materials from ever being mined.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: So tell me about the barriers that exist to repairing devices like a phone these days.

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah. For the most part, it has been really difficult to repair a device on your own. And this is because the parts are difficult to get, the repair guides are very difficult to get, and often, they require specialized tools. And then, once you’re in there, you need a specific part to go and fix anything. And increasingly, these parts are paired to a specific device, and so Apple will need to go and essentially unlock a part so that it will work with your existing phone. And you extend this not just to phones, but again, to appliances, to tractors, and you have a situation where a lot of people think it’s just easier to go and buy a new one when something breaks.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: So the last time you joined us to talk about this was in 2019, so a number of years ago, and the movement was in a very different place at that time. And since then, four states have passed right to repair legislation. Can you sum up what’s happened?

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah. So when I was on in 2019, I think it was a lot of right to repair activists who are sort of shouting from the rooftops saying, we can’t fix our things, and talking about all of the kind of harms, the environmental harms, the economic harms, and sort of just the frustration of that. And I come bearing good news, which is it’s not just people shouting from the rooftops anymore. There’s been actual improvements in the situation.

So as you mentioned, New York, Minnesota, California, Oregon, and soon to be Colorado have all passed legislation that enshrines the right to repair. Manufacturers of electronics are required to make repair parts available to the general public, repair guides available to the general public, and the tools required to repair a device available to the general public. Back when we talked in 2019, that was not the case. There were essentially no options for people who wanted to fix their own devices. So if you’ve been living in a state that has recently passed this legislation, a lot of them go into effect on June 1st. So that means you may have a different experience starting as soon as this weekend.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: And I think Oregon, where I live, has even stricter provisions around something called parts pairing. What is that?

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah. So this is huge news. Essentially, in the aftermath of some of these other right to repair laws being passed, manufacturers found other ways to dominate what happens to a device after they’ve sold it. And it’s this regime called parts pairing, where if I take the screen off of my iPhone 15 and I try to put it on your iPhone 15, it won’t work because that part is paired to my initial device. And the only way that it can be paired to your device would be if Apple were to run its own software that is not available to the general public to pair that device.

What the Oregon law says is that will no longer be allowed. And Colorado just passed and signed a similar law that also bans parts pairing. So starting next year, that will no longer be allowed. And I think it maybe sounds abstract. It’s like, why would we swap phone screens? But where you buy a broken phone that has some good parts and you can harvest those parts and use those parts to fix another phone, that is very common in the independent repair world. People used to do that all the time. And they’ll be able to continue to do that once parts pairing is banned.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Why are some of these companies fighting so hard against this kind of legislation?

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah. So for years, it wasn’t just individual companies, but it was also lobbying groups that represented the entire electronics industry were lobbying against these bills in states all over the country. And for a while, they were pretty successful at getting them killed. And then, another news story would come out where, for example, a school district would say, we’re unable to fix Chromebooks, and we’re unable to afford to buy more Chromebooks. And this story would go viral, and it would become just another example of manufacturers saying, we should control what happens to devices after we sell them.

And over time, there’s been enough media coverage and also enough politicians who have started to understand the problem where these arguments that are made by manufacturers, where they say, repair is insecure, or people are going to hurt themselves if they try to repair something and the battery explodes because they’re careless, these are fear-mongering excuses that have been used to kill to repair in the past. And I think that manufacturers have made these arguments because aftermarket repair is not something that they want to deal with. They want to be able to control what happens to a phone or a laptop or an appliance after the fact.

Because all of them have these authorized repair situations where they are making money from the repair of a device. And even better than that, they think is, if something breaks and the consumer has to buy a new one, well, that’s another sale, right?

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Not every company has been fighting this stuff. Can you talk about the differences between Google and Apple, for instance?

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah. It’s very interesting, because Apple was one of the biggest lobbying entities against right to repair for a very long time. And sometime last year, Apple actually supported a right to repair bill in California. But this right to repair bill allowed for the parts pairing that we were talking about earlier. And this still allowed Apple to have a huge level of control over the repair of iPhones.

And then, in Oregon, there is this bill that would ban, and did ban, parts pairing. And what Google figured out was how to allow Android phones to be repaired without parts pairing, and they have been lobbying very hard for the bill that is now a law in Oregon because they’re essentially able to differentiate themselves from Apple by saying, hey, Android phones are repairable. If you want to keep your phone for a longer time, buy an Android device.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Now, the reason we wanted to talk to you today is because of the most recent Samsung news, which 404 Media actually broke. Your outlet broke the news that Samsung has been trying to get repair shops to sign a contract with some pretty shocking provisions. What was in that leaked contract that you published and why was it such a big deal?

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah. So in order to buy repair parts directly from Samsung for Galaxy phones, independent repair shops are required to sign a contract with Samsung saying that if a customer brought in a phone that used an aftermarket part, meaning a third-party, non-Samsung part, they would have to, quote, disassemble the device and then immediately notify Samsung of this.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Potentially like, bricking the device, right? That’s what we’re talking about here.

JASON KOEBLER: Potentially destroying the device. And I don’t know, if I was a customer and I took my phone to an independent repair shop, and they said, sorry, I have to disable this and I’m telling Samsung, I think I would be pretty upset.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Is any of this legal?

JASON KOEBLER: I mean, you would be shocked what’s legal under end user license agreements and contract law, and so on and so forth. But this is exactly the type of thing that right to repair laws are trying to prevent. In states that have right to repair laws, any independent shop that wants to buy parts from a manufacturer would not be required to sign anything like this. The manufacturer would have to sell it to them without onerous terms.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: One of the stories that I’ve associated with the right to repair movement for years now is that of the John Deere tractors. Can you remind us what the core issue is there and what’s happened more recently?

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah. I think that something that has really driven home the problem of repairability is with John Deere tractors. Because I don’t know, I have an iPhone. If I break the iPhone and I have to buy a new one, it is very expensive, but we’re talking about $1,000. Whereas if a farmer breaks their tractor, these can cost upwards of $500,000.

Farming is also something that’s super time-intensive and time-sensitive. So if a tractor breaks during a key harvest moment, for example, and you have to wait hours or days for a John Deere dealer to come out and try to fix a tractor, that can mean a lost crop. I’ve talked to a lot of farmers who have had soybeans wilt on the vine because they’ve been unable to get their tractor repaired.

So John Deere is now facing a class action lawsuit in Illinois, where around 20 farmers are alleging that they have material losses because they were unable to get their tractors fixed. And the judge there just refused to throw out the case. Class action lawsuits often and notoriously take many years to go through the litigation process. But the farmers made a good enough argument that the lawsuit will move forward, which is a huge deal, because it’s already been in court for three years.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: All right. Well, thank you so much, Jason, for taking the time to break this down with us.

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Jason Koebler is the co-host of the 404 Media podcast.

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About D. Peterschmidt

D. Peterschmidt is a producer, host of the podcast Universe of Art, and composes music for Science Friday’s podcasts. Their D&D character is a clumsy bard named Chip Chap Chopman.

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Arielle Duhaime-Ross is freelance science journalist, artist, podcast, and TV host based in Portland, OR.

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