Do right-to-repair programs go far enough?

With legislation looming, leading manufacturers are introducing right to repair programs, but critics say they're still too restrictive.

Ask a manufacturer why you shouldn't be allowed to repair your device yourself, and they'll tell you it's too dangerous, too complex, and too insecure.

But there's increasing resistance to this attitude, with consumer pressure and legislative action starting to give the power back to the user.

There's certainly public support for such a move, with a Eurobarometer survey revealing that 79 per cent of EU citizens believe that manufacturers should be obliged to facilitate the repair of digital devices or the replacement of individual parts and that 77 per cent would rather have their devices repaired than replaced.

"Consumers should have better access to spare parts and independent repairs at reasonable costs and within reasonable time-limits," says Pirate Party MEP Marcel Kolaja.

"It is also crucial to label the products with information on estimated lifetime and provide as much information as possible on repairability. Manufacturers cannot force consumers to buy new products every other year."

European legislation

The European Parliament recently adopted a European Commission proposal on the right to repair, agreeing that products should be designed to last longer, to be safely repaired, and their parts easily removed. Repairers and consumers should be given access to repair and maintenance information, free of charge.

There should be incentives for consumers to choose repair over replacement, such as extended guarantees or receiving a replacement device for the duration of a repair, along with harmonised rules for consumer information at the point of sale, including 'repair scores', estimated lifespan, spare parts, repair services, and the availability of software updates.

Meanwhile, in the US, legislation is also in the pipeline. In July last year, President Biden signed an executive order enabling the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to implement regulations banning manufacturers from imposing restrictions on independent repair shops.

And earlier this year, the Fair Repair Act of 2022 was introduced, requiring manufacturers to make available the tools, parts, and documentation needed for independent third parties to carry out repairs.

Manufacturers loosen their grip

With the writing clearly on the wall, some device manufacturers are moving towards allowing a right to repair. In recent weeks, for example, Microsoft, Google, and Samsung have partnered with iFixit to offer parts, tools, and repair guides, while Apple has launched a program of its own.

But are they doing enough? Many say not.

First, the programs apply only to a limited range of products. Google’s will only cover Pixel phones; Apple's is limited to three recent iPhone models, and Samsung’s initially covers only the Galaxy S20, S21, and Tab S7 ranges. They're also limited geographically.

Serialization prevents repairers from using unauthorized components, and devices are often also hard to repair: most Samsung phone batteries, for example, are glued to the display housing and difficult to remove. Samsung's solution is to sell the complete assembly - increasing the self-repair costs.

Meanwhile, Apple's recently announced right to repair program has come in for particular criticism. It requires customers to provide the serial number of the phone and have parts verified during the course of the repair.

Instructions have been described as confusing and incomplete, and the toolkit required costs $49 for a one-week rental, meaning there's little cost incentive for users to carry out repairs themselves.

The voluntary introduction of these programs was clearly aimed at allaying public anger and, possibly, averting as many legislative requirements as possible. However, they may well have done too little, too late.

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