I've got a broken combine harvester – but the manufacturer won't give me the software key

Right-to-repair activists welcome policy wins with caution


Feature It was the middle of harvest, and Sarah Rachor wasn't happy. Rachor, who runs a farm with her father in Sidney, Montana, was baling hay in the field when the tractor she was using shut down without warning. The culprit was a sensor that detected the tractor was overheating. In reality, it wasn't.

"The sensor itself had failed," she recalls, explaining that the immediate shutdown left her in the middle of a field with a functional but disabled tractor and acres of hay on the ground.

The tractor wouldn't run without a positive signal from the sensor. "You can't bypass it. There's no way to ignore it like you could with a check engine light."

Only a mechanic with the necessary computing skills could replace it, but they're thin on the ground at harvest. She waited a week, wiping 10 per cent off her crop yield, which together with the sensor replacement cost her around $10,000.

Rachor is one of many people who doesn't truly own the products they pay for. Farmers are used to tinkering with equipment and coming up with at least temporary fixes on their own so that they can get the job done. Thanks to software controls baked into the products, that's no longer possible. "It's not the mechanics of it that slows us down. It's when it's a computer-related issue," she says.

The right to repair products independently has been a thorny issue since at least the mid-'70s, when the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act prevented manufacturers from tying warranties to the use of branded parts. But that law still frees them to make independent repairs difficult. And it doesn't address issues such as product designs that complicate repairs, or the unavailability of parts or repair information.

"If every OEM today did that as they did in the 1960s – published detailed service manuals, made replacement parts readily available, pasted schematics on the back of their products, etc. – nobody would be clamouring for a right to repair, because it wouldn't be necessary," says Paul Roberts, founder of SecuRepairs.org, a pressure group for fixable products formed by IT and security pros.

Products have also morphed almost unrecognisably since Magnuson-Moss. So have the relationships between customers and vendors. Back then, there were just 61 nodes in an ARPANET most people had never heard of.

Today, products come embedded with software locks that report back via the internet to ensure that their "owners" aren't breaking the vendors' rules.

"As software has made its way into almost everything that we use, manufacturers have used that to lock down the repair process," explains Kevin O'Reilly, right-to-repair campaign director at US PIRG, a federation of independent, state-based, citizen-funded public interest research groups across 25 states.

This software-based control is what allows speaker vendor Sonos to brick its products remotely in return for a discount on new equipment, so that it can't be sold on the second-hand market. It's what enables Tesla to turn off features that it doesn't think certain users should have.

Right-to-repair advocates argue that these gaps in the law perpetuate a culture of planned obsolescence. Putting repairability in the vendor's control makes it difficult to upgrade parts yourself and encourages you to pay expensive fees to approved technicians or to simply throw out your device and get a new one.

We see that in design choices like Apple's soldering of RAM to motherboards, for example, or in its blocking of replacement camera modules for the iPhone 12 without a proprietary tool. Apple, which does operate an independent repair provider programme, did not respond to our interview request.

This manufactured demand is helping create a tsunami of electronic waste that grew 21 per cent in 2019 to 53.6 million tonnes, said the UN last year. "Americans throw away 416,000 cell phones every single year," says O'Reilly, citing US PIRG's report on the subject.

"If we were able to extend the lifespan, on average, by just a year, it would have the carbon-cutting equivalent of taking 636,000 cars off the road."

A new UK law

In the UK, new rules introduced in March after a public consultation open up the availability of parts and maintenance information to consumers. However, this doesn't do enough, warns sustainability think tank the Green Alliance. It only applies to washing machines, dishwashers, fridges, and electronic screens such as TVs, meaning that computers and phones aren't covered.

The new UK rules, which mirror those in the EU, only force manufacturers to offer a subset of parts to consumers, such as replacement power supplies and remote controls for TVs. If you want to fix your dishwasher's drain filter, you'll be able to get the parts. The manufacturer won't have to give you the parts for more complex repairs like a drain pump.

These regulations shouldn't be labelled as right to repair, says the alliance's head of resource policy, Libby Peake. She sees three pillars of a proper right-to-repair policy. The first is designing products to be repairable, which is what the UK law addresses.

"The other pillars are to do with the affordability of spare parts and repair services. And that's not been covered," she warns. "And then the final pillar has to do with providing people with adequate information."

Under the new rules, companies could still bundle parts to make repairs prohibitively expensive, she says. They are also under no obligation to make repair manuals available to consumers.

The battle continues in the US

In the US, an ongoing legal battle for the right to repair continues, with manufacturers lobbying state-to-state to contest bills proposed in 27 states. "Every time a state introduces a bill, Apple hires the most expensive lobbyists in the state to try to stop it, and they were successful," says Kyle Wiens, founder and CEO of iFixit, which distributes repair information for projects online.

New York failed to pass a right-to-repair bill in June after time ran out, in spite of state Senate support. "24 out of those 27 bills are dead right now," he adds.

Rachor, who sits on the board of the Montana Farmers Union, was part of the effort to pass an agriculture right-to-repair bill in the state. She believes that vendors had a hand in the bill's failure. "By the last hearing, before the Senate, they had a full crew lobbying against us."

In California, right-to-repair activist Nader Hamoud had a similar experience trying to get right-to-repair bill SB605 through committee. "We received unanimous support from the Senate representative," he says, adding that it got nixed in a committee hearing.

"They put it on suspension with no justification or reasoning," he continues. "Our assumption was that it was just lobbying from the manufacturers."

Manufacturers often cite issues including safety as a key factor in right-to-repair issues. Hamoud, biomedical engineering manager at John Muir Health, scoffs at these claims. He's responsible for ensuring that medical equipment is available and safe. His engineers are technically capable of repairing some equipment, but can't, because the manufacturers refuse to let his engineers touch the devices on safety and regulatory grounds.

"We are as regulated as the manufacturers and maybe a bit more, because now we're dealing with patients, not just manufacturing a device and sending it out," he says.

He argues that his organisations must report to the Joint Commission, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the state, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "So that that claim from the manufacturers doesn't have any ground with us as healthcare organisations."

In some cases, manufacturers will train his engineers to maintain products but then insist on them buying a digital key to access software locks after paying for the course, he says.

The FTC pours cold water on vendor claims

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has countered the safety argument along with the other manufacturer talking points. In May this year, the body published a report outlining the findings of a 2019 workshop that it conducted into right-to-repair restrictions.

It dismissed the safety argument, saying that in some cases vendors who fail to cooperate on the right to repair often make things more dangerous, such as failing to label batteries that look the same but have different internal chemistry and could overheat.

The report also waved away the cybersecurity argument, saying there's no evidence that independent repair shops are less likely to treat customers' equipment and data securely.

In fact, you could argue the opposite. Apple paid millions to an Oregon college student after authorised repair technicians found naked pictures of her when repairing her device and published them on her Facebook account.

Frustrated with the war of attrition at the state level, US politicians are taking the fight to DC. House Rep Joe Morelle introduced a bill to Congress called the Right to Repair Act, which would cover all electronic devices and would grant consumers the same repair rights as licensed technicians.

Taking the battle to the hill

In July, the White House also covered the right to repair in its Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy. It encourages the FTC to limit equipment manufacturers from restricting independent repairs, calling out the agricultural and smartphone industries specifically.

Wiens at iFixit says that the FTC will act quickly to follow through with rulemaking that supports right-to-repair policies. Roberts believes it will get caught up in federal bureaucracy and probably be challenged by opponents, but still considers it an ideological win following years of inactivity over the issue.

"The EO is a giant leap forward for the right-to-repair movement because it puts the Executive Branch squarely behind the right to repair and using the powers of the Presidency to expand access to repair," he says.

It's important to understand the limitations of an executive order, though. It isn't legislation, and could easily be overturned by a future administration. So activists continue to push for legislation at both the state and federal levels.

They also seek to change existing laws that hinder their movement still further. Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes it illegal to break protection measures. Every three years, the right-to-repair community tussles with the Copyright Office to keep repairs of specific product categories on the exemptions list.

iFixit continues to tackle this issue, most recently asking for exemptions on gaming consoles. However, iFixit and Roberts would both like a change to a law that, after all, was originally designed to stop people tampering with DRM on movies, not tractors.

"A sympathetic Librarian of Congress is a very thin thread to hang something as important as the right to repair on," Roberts tell The Register. While the policy moves on both sides of the Atlantic are encouraging, they're by no means an outright win, say advocates. They're a step in the right direction, but for right-to-repair activists, the system still needs a lot more tinkering. ®

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