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Why 'Right to Repair' legislation could be a new lease on life for broken devices
Fri, 22nd Mar 2019
FYI, this story is more than a year old

There's a movement gaining momentum in the United States and Europe that could potentially change what rights consumers have when a product breaks, malfunctions, or stops working.

Currently, some tech manufacturers such as Apple only allow device repairs through authorised repair agents. You may have come across tech retail stores that have ‘Authorised Apple Service Provider' or something similar emblazoned across their shop windows.

Apple has also been ruthless. Canada's CBC has gone as far as to call Apple's repair policies ‘abusive'. The Australian Federal Court fined Apple AU$9 million for breaches of consumer law. Apple allegedly displayed an ‘Error 53' message on devices with screens that had been repaired with third-party products. The error message made the device completely unusable. Apple said the error message was to protect user security, but that didn't stop the courts from dealing out the fine.

Apple has even tried to sue a Norwegian repair shop owner who used aftermarket iPhone parts. Apple lost the case.

But Apple isn't the only manufacturer with a strong grip on its repair processes. The entire practice, regardless of who the manufacturer is, has been criticised by many as anti-competitive and restricting consumer choice.

In California, Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman is introducing legislation to fight back against that anticompetitive behaviour and to give consumers more choice. California is the 20th US state to introduce legislation that deals with the issue.

In New Zealand, the Consumer Guarantees Act gives consumers the right to refund, repair or replacement, as long as the user didn't cause the problem themselves.

Consumers must work with the retailer and manufacturer to get the issue sorted. Consumers are still limited for options and choice – especially if a device is old enough that there are no more replacement parts available from the manufacturer. Although the Disputes Tribunal is an option, many Kiwis won't bother going that far to repair a product.

However, the California, US legislation, called Assembly Bill 1163, will require electronics manufacturers to open their service books, equipment and parts holds to be available to regulated, independent repair shops and to product owners.

“For nearly 30 years California has required that manufacturers provide access to replacement parts and service materials for electronics and appliances to authorised repairers in the state. In that time, manufacturers have captured the market, controlling where and when we repair our property and inflating the electronic waste stream,” says Eggman.

Consumers currently have two options – pay what the manufacturer demands to repair a device or to throw the device away.

“The Right to Repair will provide consumers with the freedom to have their electronic products and appliances fixed by a repair shop or service provider of their choice, creating a competitive market that will be cheaper for consumers and reduce the number of devices thrown in the trash," Eggman continues.

This is a big deal that could send ripples through the tech industry – and as Eggman alludes to, it's also a big deal for environmental concerns. Consumers who can't afford to pay the high price of manufacturer-based repair services often end up tossing their broken products into landfill.

If the Right to Repair legislation has its way, consumers will be free to choose their own repair shop – potentially saving the broken product, the consumer's wallet, and it also means one less product that ends up in the landfill.

iFixit CEO Kyle Weins was quoted as saying, “If you can't fix it, you don't own it”. He has been a major force in trying to get Right to Repair legislation introduced in the US.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has also backed Eggman's fight. EFF legislative counsel Ernesto Falcon says the bill is critical to protect independent repair shops and to encourage a competitive repair market.

This, Falcon says, “means better service and lower prices. It also helps preserve the right of individual device owners to understand and fix their own property”.

Californians Against Waste and consumer group CALPIRG are also rallying for Eggman's bill. Californians Against Waste executive director says people shouldn't have to ‘upgrade' to a new model every time a replaceable part on their device or home appliance breaks.

“These companies are profiting at the expense of our environment and our pocketbooks as we become a throw-away society that discards over 6 million tonnes of electronics every year.

The legislation may also mean that companies such as Apple will lose some control over its repair process. It may even force Apple to make changes to its Limited Warranty as well as its AppleCare Protection Plan and AppleCare+ products.

"Companies love when we buy and toss, and buy new at the greatest possible speed, but it's expensive for consumers and the waste is piling up," comments CALPIRG executive director Emily Rusch.

"Electronic waste is now the fastest-growing part of the waste stream. This bill will help California fix our way out of this mess."

If similar legislation eventually makes its way to New Zealand, that LED TV with the broken screen might just have a new lease on life.