But when something goes wrong with your smartphone — say a shattered screen or a depleted battery — you may wonder: “Is it time to buy a new one?” That’s because even as our consumer electronics have become as vital as our cars, the idea of tech repair still hasn’t been sown into our collective consciousness. Studies have shown that when tech products begin to fail, most people are inclined to buy new things rather than fix their old ones.
“Repair is inconvenient and difficult, so people don’t seek it,” said Nathan Proctor, a director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organisation, who is working on legislation to make tech repair more accessible. “Because people don’t expect to repair things, they replace things when by far the most logical thing to do is to repair it.” It doesn’t have to be this way. More of us could maintain our tech products, as we do with cars, if it were more practical to do so. If we all had more access to the parts, instructions and tools to revive products, repairs would become simpler and less expensive.
This premise is at the heart of the “right to repair” act, a proposed piece of legislation that activists and tech companies have fought over for nearly a decade. Recently, right-to-repair supporters scored two major wins. In May, the Federal Trade Commission published a report explaining how tech companies were harming competition by restricting repairs. And last Friday, President Biden issued an executive order that included a directive for the F.T.C. to place limits on how tech manufacturers could restrict repairs. The F.T.C. is set to meet next week to discuss new policies about electronics repair. Here’s what you need to know about the fight over your right to fix gadgets.
The legislation, which was previously proposed in about two dozen states and is now being discussed on a federal level, would require tech and appliance manufacturers to provide the tools, instructions and parts necessary for anyone to fix their smartphones, tablets, computers and refrigerators.
That would be a major shift. Tech companies currently provide service tools and parts only to a network of officially approved partners, including big brands with service centers like Best Buy and some independent repair shops. These official partners typically follow strict rules, which include using genuine parts bought directly from the manufacturer, so costs to the customer may be higher than repairs done by unauthorised repair centers.
By making resources broadly available, the unofficial repair centers could more easily compete to drive costs down. And that would make repair a more compelling option than buying a new gadget. Tech products are among our most expensive household purchases, and their prices keep climbing. The average household would save $330 a year if it repaired products rather than replaced them, which adds up to $40 billion nationwide, according to a study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
By prolonging the life of your gadgets, you would also put more use into the energy, metals, plastics and human labor invested in creating the product. Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google have contributed to lobbying efforts against the right-to-repair act. The most common argument is security — the idea that people with access to repair and diagnostics tools could perform illegitimate repairs and steal people’s data.