Right to Repair: A Long Overdue Right?

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Do we really own the products that we buy? If ownership is limited to simply having physical possession of the product, then yes. However, “Right to Repair” advocates offer a fresh perspective on ownership. They believe that ownership is only truly transferred when consumers are empowered to repair their own products or, at least, hire technicians of their choice to do so. In theory, while this is mostly possible within the legal terms set between the buyer and the manufacturer, it is not feasible.

For instance, assume you wish to replace your phone’s aging battery. The solution should be fairly straightforward: buy a new battery, remove your old battery and replace it. It is cheap, efficient, and helps the environment. But in reality, you are probably forced to dispose of your phone and buy a new one, purely because of the lack of access to spare batteries in the consumer market, or more commonly the lack of access to the documentation on how to remove and re-integrate the battery into the phone. Even if you do find a way to replace your battery without replacing your phone, your phone’s warranty would become void. A poll conducted by Innovative Research Group found that 76 percent of people in Canada have had to dispose of their electronic devices due to problems such as cracked screens, weak batteries, or a keyboard malfunction.

Provincial governments like Ontario have in the past attempted to take a rather direct approach to tackle this lack of access to spare parts and documentation. Bill 72, which is now quashed, would require manufacturers to provide consumers with “the most recent version of the documents, replacement parts, software, and other tools” needed to fix their electronic products. Quebec’s Bill 197, while proposing a slightly different approach, highlights another issue that Right to Repair aims to tackle – planned obsolescence. If passed, the Bill would require manufacturers to affix a label on their appliances that would mention the average time before the item needs repair. This would, in turn, deter manufacturers from designing products in a way that they would quickly break down or become outdated.

However, these efforts have been dampened by the deep-pocketed tech giants who are looking to monopolize the growing repair and services industry.

Each of these efforts from the provincial governments makes it evident that the Right to Repair movement is gaining momentum in Canada. However, these efforts have been dampened by the deep-pocketed tech giants who are looking to monopolize the growing repair and services industry. In 2019, Ontario MPP Michael Coteau’s Right to Repair Bill was quashed under the influence of Apple, Panasonic, and other manufacturers. This is unsurprising considering Apple generates 17.7% of its revenue through its growing services business as compared to just 9.8% from the sale of the Mac computer.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is a supporter of the Right to Repair movement as well. He points out that apart from monopolizing the repair industry, the lack of access to spare parts and source code poses a threat to innovation and entrepreneurship as well. Today, companies use patents and copyrights that cite consumer safety and intellectual property security as a reason to conceal product documentation. But Wozniak insists that if not for “a very open technology world”, Apple would not have ever been founded. Access to such information and parts in the past had made the market into an open forum of sorts. In such a market, anyone with a better idea or solution to an existing problem could make incremental changes to the product or even launch their own product, thereby filling the niche the existing product could not fill. Subsequently, this would foster rapid innovation rather than creating a monopoly in the name of safety and security.

A Right to Repair legislation could save thousands of jobs in the independent repair industry and increase the accessibility of repair to rural communities.

The problem at hand could be summarized by what Wozniak says: “I believe that companies inhibit it because it gives the companies power, control over everything.” By manipulating product designs to make them break down or become obsolete quickly, companies secure their revenue streams either by making consumers service their products at unreasonable rates or by compelling them to upgrade to newer products entirely. A Right to Repair legislation could save thousands of jobs in the independent repair industry and increase the accessibility of repair to rural communities that may not have access to authorized service centers. Not to mention the huge impact that these laws could have on the environment, by increasing the life-cycle of products and subsequently reducing e-waste generation. Given that a lot of e-waste cannot be recycled, Right to Repair also reduces the urgency to recycle by prolonging the life cycle of products. Considering the wide range of stakeholders that these repair reforms could benefit, it is imperative that the government, industries, and consumers work in synergy so that the movement can materialize into strong policy reforms.

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