The Right to Repair is based on a simple premise: once you buy a device, it’s yours and you should choose who you want to repair it — someone you trust to do a good job, and protect your privacy. You might well choose the manufacturer, but maybe you have someone you trust more.
A lack of consumer protection laws complicates the matter. Manufacturers are allowed to — and do — restrict repairs under the premise that their authorized service is safer and more secure. But that’s not necessarily the case. According to multiple media reports, employees at an “Apple-authorized” repair vendor, Pegatron Technology Service, took intimate photos and video from a device sent in for repairs by an Oregon woman and then, reportedly, posted them online, including to her own Facebook page where her friends and family saw it. Apple has reportedly settled the case for an undisclosed sum in the millions — but money can only do so much to heal emotional scars.
In a statement, Apple claimed it investigated the incident and terminated the responsible technicians … but it’s not the only time a customer has accused someone working for Apple of violating her privacy.
It should be up to me where I get my phone fixed
Manufacturers routinely restrict access to what people need to fix modern gadgets, refusing to sell spare parts, or make necessary tools and information available to anyone outside of their few, select “authorized” locations. In response to these restrictions, small fix-it businesses and consumer advocates have proposed Right to Repair reforms to require manufacturers to sell or provide necessary materials for repair.
If passed, these reforms would give consumers multiple choices of where to get products fixed. All repair people would have access to the necessary parts, tools and information to do their jobs.
Not only is that common-sense, it’s quite popular. More than half of U.S. states have considered repair reform legislation at some point during 2021. In each of these state houses, during the back and forth between manufacturers and Right to Repair advocates, you will almost always hear manufacturers or their trade groups argue that restrictions to repair protect consumers. Here’s one example of industry rhetoric, from New Hampshire:
Manufacturers have created a system of checks and balances that enables consumers to have their products fixed while also knowing technicians are being held accountable. As New Hampshire legislators examine the repair issue, we strongly caution policymakers to resist unwarranted intervention with mandates that compromise consumer privacy, safety and security.
— Dusty Brighton, from the trade association group “Security Innovation Center.”
Paul Roberts, a Right to Repair advocate and founder of SecuRepairs.org, calls this argument the “benevolent monopoly” argument. Yes, we have taken your choices away from you, the reasoning goes, but we did it to protect you from making the wrong choice or being tricked. Science fiction author and activist Cory Doctorow describes Apple’s model as “digital feudalism,” with the company acting as “warlord,” forcing citizens to stay within its walls and to abide by its rules.
Regardless of how you describe this premise, promises of “consumer privacy” ring pretty dang hollow after reading stories like the ones above.
To me, it gets back to a question of choice. When I can choose where and how to fix my devices, I can decide for myself what I think will be my best option.
I appreciate when companies try to woo me with great service — and security and privacy are key parts of that. But without competition, no one has incentive to provide great service. Sometimes, prices go up. Sometimes service gets worse. Sometimes, both things happen.
And what if I don’t trust any store, and would prefer to do repairs by myself. Why can’t I order the parts, or get the necessary tools or repair documentation, if that’s what I want?
We can fix this problem together. If you want to make your own choices about who repairs your gadgets, take action, and tell your local representative you want the Right to Repair in your state.
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.