Companies have always tried to corral their customers into behaving in ways that maximize the companies’ profits, even if that’s not best for the customers: forcing you to use “official” printer ink, to buy your printers and terminals from the same company that sold you your mainframe, to get your apps from the company that sold you your phone.
One especially effective profit-maximization strategy is controlling repairs. If a company can force you to use its official repair services, they can set prices for parts and service, and force you to use original manufacturer’s parts, rather than third-party parts or refurbished parts. And, of course, they can refuse to repair a product after a certain number of years: in the absence of a third-party repair option, this means that you have to throw away your product and buy another one from the company.
Though the urge to control customers to maximize profits is as old as business, the digital era has seen an important shift in the tactics used to make business models mandatory. The abuse of laws like Section 1201 of the DMCA (which bans breaking DRM), the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (which lets companies treat their “license agreements” as though they had the force of law), as well as trade secrecy and monopolistic supply-chain control has literally criminalized many forms of independent repair, and it’s getting worse.
Last year, 18 state level Right to Repair bills were crushed by a big business coalition led by the tech industry. These bills would end companies’ war on independent service by forcing them to supply parts, manuals, and diagnostic codes to independent technicians.
Yesterday was Repair Day, a national celebration of fixing stuff. Independent repair creates high-paid local jobs in small/medium enterprises that keep the money in your community; it diverts e-waste from “recyclers” whose workers labor in unsafe conditions and create mountains of toxic materials that last for millennia; it gives the public more useful life from their property; and it creates a stream of low-cost, refurbished gadgets that are within the means of poor people.
I wrote a post about this for EFF Deeplinks (EFF is part of the Repair Coalition). We’re about to see the reintroduction of state Right to Repair bills in the coming year, and we need everyone pulling for those bills to overcome the corporate resistance and restore our right to repair.
Manufacturers can also look to other notorious tech laws, like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), as well as end-user license agreements, nondisclosure agreements, trade secrecy, and onerous supply-chain deals. Taken together, these rules and agreements have allowed the country’s increasingly concentrated industries to turn purchasing a simple device, appliance, or vehicle into a long-term relationship with the manufacturer, like it or not.
The corporations involved make all kinds of bad faith arguments, claiming that they are protecting their customers from safety risks, like getting malware on their phone via an unscrupulous service technician or winding up with defective replacement parts.
But the reality is that anyone can screw up a repair, including the manufacturer’s authorized technicians. Only in the bizarro universe of monopoly corporatethink do consumers get a better deal and more reliable service when companies don’t have to compete to get their business (and of course, controlling repairs means controlling product life: in California, a law requires manufacturers to supply parts for seven years, and in California, laptops and phones and other electronics last for seven years, while manufacturers in neighboring states often declare their products to be obsolete after three or five years).
Last year, 18 states introduced Right to Repair legislation that requires manufacturers to get out of the way of independent repair: to make parts, manuals and diagnostic codes available to third-party service depots and refrain from other practices that limit your ability to decide who can fix your things.
It’s Repair Day: No One Should Be Punished for “Contempt of Business Model” [Cory Doctorow/EFF Deeplinks]
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