Life

The right to repair: Who really owns your smartphone?

We are at the mercy of the manufacturers when it comes to fixing the software that drives our devices. How did it come to this?

Smartphone

Photo: Rami Al-zayat / Unsplash

Do you own the phone in your pocket? For most of us, the obvious, intuitive answer is yes. A device that you carry with you every day to communicate with colleagues, friends, and loved ones that contains a trove of personal information, feels fundamentally yours. But the reality is more complicated.

When the very functioning of a device depends on embedded software and network connections, it remains tethered to its manufacturer even after you buy it. That’s true not only for smartphones, but for vehicles, kitchen appliances and even door locks. This tether can reveal itself in many ways. Some will recall the shock of iPhone owners in 2014 when an unsolicited U2 album appeared on their devices without warning. Even though it was free, the incident was unsettling because it revealed that our phones weren’t entirely under our control.

For years, that tether has manifested itself in another, far more troubling way. Device makers use their power over hardware, software, and pricing to discourage and even prevent us from repairing the products we buy. And without the right to fix your phone or your tractor, can you really claim to own it?

When companies build their products using speciality screws, seal them with glue and solder and rely on non-modular parts, they are choosing to make repair more difficult. Of course, planned obsolescence is nothing new. Manufacturers have been designing products to shorten their lifespans and maximise replacement sales for a century.

But in the era of software-dependent ‘smart’ devices, manufacturers have more power over repair than ever. Software code allows them to restrict access to diagnostic information necessary to pinpoint faults. It enables them to disable genuine replacement parts that weren’t installed by the manufacturer’s preferred repair provider. In extreme cases, these software locks can brick devices – rendering them entirely unusable – for the sin of an otherwise successful independent repair.

These restrictions are compounded by the economic power manufacturers wield in repair markets. Many device makers simply refuse to sell replacement parts to device owners or independent repair shops. They enter into exclusive deals with part makers to clamp down on the market for necessary parts, as Apple has done with suppliers like Intersil. As a result, device makers can charge exorbitant prices for straightforward repairs. And for many devices that are just a few years old, they offer no repairs at all. The message is unmistakable: don’t repair your device, replace it.

In many ways, the law reinforces these anti-repair strategies. Device makers claim copyright protection allows them to lock down access to the software that runs our devices. They argue that patents, trademarks and design rights give them the power to control the market for replacement parts. And they insist that trade secrecy affords them the right to restrict access to repair manuals, schematics and other information necessary for independent repair. These claims, though, often dramatically overstate the legal position of device makers. Even when those claims are accurate, we should be sceptical of legal rules that stand in the way of repair, driving up prices for consumers and contributing to the already staggering production of electronic waste and other environmental costs of disposable consumerism.

The Right to Repair
The Right to Repair: Reclaiming the Things We Own by Aaron Perzanowski is out now (Cambridge University Press, £14.99)

In the face of these restrictions, a growing, global right to repair movement has emerged. Consumers, independent repair shops, policy advocates, community organisers and academics have come together to push for much-needed reforms. Many of those changes focus on bolstering existing consumer protection and competition laws to reduce repair restrictions. Some, like France’s mandatory reparability scores, are meant to give consumers better information about the costs of repair when they buy new products. And still others, like the ecodesign rules adopted in Europe and the UK, address the design choices that make products difficult to repair from the outset. From Australia to South Africa to the United States, we see a range of other strategies under consideration. But they all share a common core principle: if you own something, you have the right to repair it in the manner you choose.

As agencies like the US Federal Trade Commission and the Australian Productivity Commission have focused increasing attention on repair restrictions, we’ve seen companies like Apple, Microsoft and others soften their longstanding stances against independent repair. But this fight is far from over. A future in which ownership remains meaningful and we control the devices in our pockets, rather than the other way around, starts with demanding and securing the right to repair.

Aaron Perzanowski is a professor of law at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio @APerzanowski

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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