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The Right to Repair movement won its biggest victories in 2023

It’s been a banner year for the Right to Repair movement as supportive bills are signed into law across the US and abroad. Apple shocked the world, too, as it backed California’s bill and urged for a countrywide equivalent. In the EU, regulators mandated the use of USB-C as a standard charging socket for most small devices, and are now turning their attention toward anti-repair tactics. But, while the movement’s leaders should enjoy a glass or two of the good stuff, these victories aren’t total, despite how hard-won they were. To misquote Winston Churchill, this isn’t the beginning of the end, it’s very much the end of the beginning.

In the last year we’ve seen bills enacted in New York, Colorado, Minnesota and California. New York’s was famously watered down by late-in-the-day politicking which neutered some of its key provisions. That included protections for existing devices (instead, it kicks in for hardware made after July 1, 2023), obligations to supply individual parts rather than bundles and it now omits any coverage for enterprise-grade electronics like those used in schools and hospitals. Minnesota’s survived with more teeth, albeit with generous carve-outs to manufacturers of farm equipment, games consoles and cars.

NICOLAS TUCAT via Getty Images

California’s bill which, interestingly, won Apple’s backing, kicks in next year with the company saying it’ll support its provisions countrywide. And given that support, you should expect to see this bill pushed as the model for any future federal legislation. It broadly covers consumer tech and appliances, but exempts games consoles and security equipment. Key provisions require companies to sell components under “fair and reasonable terms” to owners and third-party repair shops long after the last model leaves the factory. Devices with a wholesale price between $50 and $99.99 need to have parts, tools and repair guides available for at least three years after the last new model is made. For gear costing more than $100, the parts need to stick around for “at least seven years” regardless of individual warranty periods. Similarly, tools and documentation need to be made available on a similarly “fair and reasonable” basis. There are carve-outs, including protections on trade secrets and source code, but the bones of the bill are solid enough.

Elizabeth Chamberlain, Director of Sustainability at iFixit, told Engadget it’s “the strongest” bill passed in the US, and one of the most comprehensive. (That’s less of a compliment given the paucity of alternative legislation also enacted.) The requirements for parts to remain available for so long after purchase ensures “people have the repair materials they need when they need them.” Not to mention enabling independent repair stores to get “original parts for a huge range of things without having to sign up for invasive and limiting manufacturer programs.” Nathan Proctor of the Public Interest Research Group, before the bill passed, said it would also end the onerous conditions Apple used in its Independent Repair Program. An Engadget investigation showed that while Apple’s IRP looked like a good idea on the surface, it was full of hidden charges and restrictive clauses. And as much as the iPhone 14 won plaudits for being far more repairable than its predecessors, it also used parts pairing — is a process of locking a part to a specific device, preventing users from swapping it out without the manufacturer’s approval. Sadly, California’s bill also does nothing to prevent parts pairing, which may explain why it won Apple’s backing in the first place.

In the last few years, the European Union has assumed the mantle as the major regulator of big tech, albeit with many critics. The bloc has now mandated a common charger, USB-C, for all mobile devices sold by the end of 2024, and all laptops by spring 2026. In November, regulators began looking at ways to encourage repairs and refurbishment over replacement for new gear. That includes people’s right to access spare parts, documentation and tools at a “reasonable cost” – even when the device is outside its warranty period. More importantly, the draft seeks to prevent manufacturers using “contractual, hardware or software technique” to block repairs which would seem to indicate parts pairing.

Anyone feeling triumphant about these wins should bear in mind the broad latitude these terms offer tech companies. Last year, Apple enabled end users to repair their own devices, but not in a way that made it easy, affordable or worthwhile. As The New York Times found out, replacing a component required flight cases full of factory-grade hardware and a hefty deposit. It’s a lot better now, but you’ll still need to pay to loan the high-end gear and shoulder the risk if any of it goes missing.

Similarly, these bills do nothing to prevent the company’s replacement-as-default strategy when you visit a store. After a bike accident this summer, the front and back glass of my iPhone 11 Pro Max was smashed, but it was otherwise functional. Sadly, my local Genius Bar told me the only thing I could do was… buy a replacement at full cost. That’s before we mention the iPhone 15 which, despite Apple’s pledges to be more repair-friendly, is still loaded with parts pairing. It means that, despite all of the sweet words about sustainability in the last few years, you can still only fix a part with Apple’s direct and explicit blessing. As Elizabeth Chamberlain said, “upselling is such a ubiquitous problem and really hard to stop,” but noted that the EU may have a fix for it. Its draft rules would “require manufacturers to offer repair first, before replacement, as long as it’s cheaper” (for the consumer).

Upton Sinclair once wrote that a person won’t grasp something if their salary relies upon them not understanding it. The tech industry’s organizing principle, after all, is to sell you a new piece of gear every few years to keep its profits high. Stretching out the life of a device is bad for their bottom line (at least in the short term) which explains much of their resistance. It’s why, as much as we can hope for better terms and more repairable devices, we must also be vigilant and not rest upon our laurels. The risk is that people get the right to repair their devices, but no way to actually exercise it.

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