Countries are taking Apple to court over Right to Repair — and sometimes, they’re winning

Apple was fined in Australia for disabling phones which were independently repaired, in a victory for Right to Repair advocates. 

When you buy a product, you should be able to do whatever you want with it. If it breaks, you should be able to fix it, or find someone who can. At least, that’s how it used to work.

It has become increasingly difficult to repair the things we own. It’s now easier to simply throw out these products and buy a new one. From your dishwasher to the iPhone in your pocket, products are purposefully being made to be difficult, if not impossible, to repair.

Companies profit from this cycle of waste — or planned obsolescence — and the public is forced to pay the price, both in terms of additional financial costs and environmental damage. This is why Right to Repair legislation has become so important — reforms which give the public access to parts and manuals necessary to fix our products.

Here are a couple examples of Right to Repair victories happening elsewhere around the world.

Apple fined in Australia for disabling phones which were independently repaired
In June, the Australian Federal Court fined Apple roughly $6.6 million for violating Australian Consumer Law. The tech giant came under fire for an “Error 53” message that appeared on devices that had been repaired by third party shops, rendering the device useless. While the fine is a mere slap on the wrist for a company approaching a net worth of $1 trillion, it’s significant that the court ruled in favor of bolstering consumers’ rights.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) found that from February 2015 to February 2016, Apple told at least 275 customers they could not have their products repaired by Apple if they had been previously repaired by third party repair shops. After the complaint was filed, Apple also identified 5,000 other consumers who were potentially affected by the “Error 53” message. The Court stated that consumer guarantees under Australian Consumer Law cannot be voided if a product is repaired by “unauthorized” agents — essentially shops that have not paid Apple a fee in order to gain “authorized” status.

“Error 53” worked like this: If your phone detected that it had the Touch ID sensor or other hardware, including the glass screen, replaced by unauthorized repair shops, it would display an “Error 53” message, and block the user from using the phone. It was included in a software update, so that when consumers updated the iOS on these devices, they would be locked out of their products. The issue began in 2015, but gained more attention in early 2016 as it affected the iPhone 6 and 6s models, as well as iPads with Touch ID.

Apple argued the error message was a safeguard meant to protect consumer security by preventing unwarranted access to users’ fingerprints, but the error only appeared after the user updated the iOS. If security was truly a main concern, why didn’t Apple notify customers that they felt their Touch ID had been compromised right away? And doesn’t Apple realize that screen repair is incredibly common?

A lot of people crack their phone screens. Many people live far from an authorized repair location, or just need their phone fixed quickly. Yet, Apple doesn’t make the original replacement screens available to the thousands of repair shops that people take those phones to in order to be fixed. Nor do they make calibration and diagnostic software available. These problems would be addressed by Right to Repair reform by making authorized replacement parts available to independent repair shops.

Apple loses case in Norway
Apple has seen its share of lumps in the courts lately. The company sued an electronics repair shop owner in Norway who imported salvaged screens from Asia as replacement parts for iPhones because those parts had Apple logos on them. The Norwegian court ultimately ruled in favor of the shop owner, citing the Apple logo was not visible once repairs had been completed nor was it a central selling point for the repair shop. Significantly, the court recognized the limited options when finding quality replacement parts without the Apple logo.

To many, disabling your phone because you had it repaired independently violates the basic principles of ownership. Once a customer purchases their iPhone, iPad, iPod, or other device, they should have control over how they choose to use and repair it. Pushing out legitimate competition in the repair market forces consumers to go to the original manufacturer for repairs, which adds to cost and can be a hassle. It also creates waste, as companies can decide when to fix products, and when to refuse to, pushing customers into a new purchase.

Right to Repair bills would help expand repair options by providing access to parts and service information and have been proposed in 18 states. U.S. PIRG is working to support the legislation nationwide.

By Jamie Allendorf. 


Nathan Proctor

Senior Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair, PIRG

Nathan leads U.S. PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign, working to pass legislation that will prevent companies from blocking consumers’ ability to fix their own electronics. Nathan lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, with his wife and two children.