Guest Commentaries

Digital gadget right-to-repair laws deserve support

Let's not let tech world throw it all away
February 17, 2022 at 5:15 a.m.

By Madison Dennis

Most of us have broken a phone screen at some point. Repairing these screens should be something manufacturers make easy for their customers.

Last fall, after Apple debuted its new iPhone 13, technicians discovered that the phone would disable the popular Face ID feature if someone unauthorized by Apple repaired the screen. Making matters worse, Apple refuses to sell replacement screens or make its repair software available to local independent shops. And that has shops worried. 

Mitch Kramer, owner and founder of Fixco repair shop, has been fixing devices in Bellingham for the last 10 years. 

“If I couldn’t fix broken iPhone screens without people losing their Face ID, I’d probably go out of business pretty quickly,” Kramer said. “Broken screens are the most popular repair, and Apple phones are the most popular phones. Either we get Right to Repair laws on the books, or businesses like mine will be gone.” 

After backlash from the public, Apple released a software update that rolled back its Face ID lockout in the case of screen repair. But without legislation protecting the right to repair, there is nothing stopping Apple from reversing course and remotely updating phones to lockout repairs once again. 

“A company’s fear of making slightly less money should not infringe on the rights of the consumer to own their own devices fully, which includes the ability to repair and reuse them,” said David Gould, Seattle Buy Nothing advocate and computer refurbisher. 

When manufacturers or their brand-authorized shops are the only choices for repair, they can charge an arm and leg, or push you into constantly upgrading to their newest model — whether or not your phone has plenty of life left. 

Make, use, toss and repair. It’s a system that works great if you sell new things — but it’s expensive for consumers and devastating to the planet. We are going through electronic devices at record-breaking rates, and e-waste is the fastest-growing part of the U.S. municipal waste stream. 

Not only does Washington dispose of some 8,700 cell phones a day, but we generate around 258,000 tons of electronic waste per year. 

“I've had customers go to the Apple Store with a simple cracked screen and they are told it can’t be fixed or it’s too old,” said Brandon Elliot, technician and manager for One-Hour Device Repair in Issaquah. “They then come here for a second opinion, and I get to say ‘No, that's totally flexible, that’s easy.’ But I can’t continue to do this with all the manufactured anti-repair booby traps.” 

We can turn this system around by simply giving people what they need to fix what they already have. That was the goal of the Right to Repair measure HB 1810, which recently failed to advance in Olympia due to intense industry opposition from electronics manufacturers. The proposed reforms would have required our cellphone, laptop and tablet manufacturers to sell parts and tools, and make service manuals available to prevent a monopoly on repairs. 

Patrick Connor, State Director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, polled their local small businesses and found 64% were in support of Right to Repair legislation. 

“When my customers' devices break, their world often stops. I find the work I do to be very rewarding because it allows me to help my community get back up and running again,” Kramer said. “However, manufacturers have continued to make it as difficult as possible to repair these devices. This forces my customers to send off the device to the manufacturer, or unnecessarily purchase a new device, when all they really need is a quick fix from a local shop like mine.”

If we want local repair shops to take our gadgets to, we need lawmakers to stop listening to the industry lobbyists for manufacturers and tech companies. If you agree, you should let your lawmakers know. 

Madison Dennis is a lead organizer with WashPIRG, the Washington Public Interest Research Group.

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