"Right" to Repair vs. Right to Contract

Thursday, February 01, 2018

A bill wending its way through the Washington state legislature is ostensibly aimed at making it easier for customers to repair their own consumer electronics. This "right to repair" bill would, for example, forbid manufacturers gluing batteries into such devices as smartphones and tablets. Apple has particularly raised the hackles of proponents, many of whom are either interested in making their own electronics repairs or are environmentalists. Here is probably the part of the article I empathize most with:

Image via Wikipedia.
Late last year, Apple confirmed that it slows down the processor speeds of iPhones with older batteries. This performance decrease can be fixed by replacing the battery, but Apple's replacement program has a weeks-long waiting list and the company has fought against third-party repair of its phones at every turn.

A wave of so-called right-to-repair or fair repair bills that would prevent companies from having repair monopolies have been introduced in states around the country. Last year, 12 states introduced bills that would require electronics manufacturers to make repair information available to consumers and third-party repair shops and would require them to sell replacement parts for electronics. It would also prevent them from using software locks to prevent repair or from remotely bricking electronics that use aftermarket parts. Already in 2018, 17 states have introduced fair repair bills. [links omitted]
While I empathize, as someone who used to upgrade my PCs when larger disks or cheaper RAM would hit the marketplace, the pace of improvements in many of these devices has been such that holding onto them for longer than a few years doesn't make sense for most people at the prices they have been able to pay -- on top of the repairs being harder due to the much smaller size of the devices. I suspect that the number of people interested in making repairs is insignificant enough in this market that catering to them would not make sense for most manufacturers. I have heard, for example, that gluing in batteries makes the devices cheaper: If only a tiny fraction of people who want, say, a Microsoft Surface, are interested in repairing one, why should the already-expensive devices be made even more so? And if enough such people want something like a Surface, nothing is stopping a manufacturer from making one and selling it to them. This law interferes with the right to contract, and will make devices more expensive for most people so a few hobbyists, people who waste hours to save small amounts of money, and environmentalist scolds can achieve their objectives at everyone else's expense.

That said, I don't entirely scoff at the idea of phones being made easier to repair. I recall a smartphone I was perfectly happy with whose power button had failed -- but for which the cost of repair was comparable to simply buying a new phone: I ended up buying a new phone, and it really wasn't better enough that I would have otherwise bought it. It is easy to imagine companies pursuing short-term profits by making cheap trash, and perhaps some companies -- whose management is influenced by pragmatism -- do this. (In the case of Apple, I vaguely recall reading somewhere that phasing out support for old devices on its part is a way it saves money for most of its customers. In any case, potential customers of theirs shoud take note of its well-known practice of not supporting devices for more than a few years.) This is unacceptable, but it is something customers should handle themselves -- by refusing to purchase junk, or at least doing so with open eyes. In any event, that isn't a problem that government abridging the right to contract can or will solve -- although it will create other problems in the attempt.

-- CAV


2-6-18: Added link to article on Right to Repair bill. 


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

Way back when I was a computer tech, I was an 'authorized AT&T' tech (among many other manufacturers). The AT&T computer was actually and Olivetti PC with an AT&T sticker slapped on it.

They had a clock battery that was soldered to the motherboard. Once it failed, you had the choice of either inputting a new date and time into MS DOS on every boot, or paying $1200.00 to replace the motherboard. The battery cost was about $1.25. And I had dozens of unhappy customers who, for some silly reason, balked at the idea of a $1200.00 replacement for a $1.25 part.

I couldn't de-solder and replace the battery or else I and the retail outlet I worked at would lose our authorization. I incurred the wrath of the sales manager when I was asked by the sales people which computer I thought was the best buy. My response? "Anything BUT the AT&T."

c. andrew

bratzid said...

A major issue with repairing iphones for instance is recovering data which needs a functioning phone to unencrypt the data. For more information you might check out Ipad Rebab on youtube and for apple mac repair at Louis Rossmann on youtube and on the web

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for an example of what is at best a poorly-thought-out or implemented repair policy and at worst pragmatic sleaze.

I'll take the opportunity to mention that I strongly suspect that Apple AND Microsoft indulge in similar practices, and that I really have to hold my nose to defend their right to pull a fast one on the unsuspecting. But maybe people should make an effort to be less unsuspecting. If more people did, such silly business practices (and the even more contemptible political "solutions" to them) would become much less common.


That is a problem, and rather than fighting to make it impossible for consenting adults to make contracts with each other, we should widely publicize the danger to privacy that the control-freakish terms of Apple and the like represent to our data.

Not that I needed another reason NOT to be an Apple customer: Their "walled garden" approach to software, unilateral decisions about what is best for its customers, and expensive hardware are enough for me. That said, I'll remember that whenever I consider future electronic purchases.