For the past four or five years, discussions around the so-called “right to repair” have followed a predictable cadence. iFixit or a thematically similar site will call for the passage of state or federal bill that would enshrine a consumer’s right to repair their own electronics. Said proposal is briefly discussed, iFixit releases a new round of reports showing how top-end gear from various companies remains difficult to repair (exactly how difficult varies by brand, manufacturer, and model year), everyone clucks their tongue and wishes US consumers bought hardware for reasons other than thinness, and then the entire cycle resets. Consumers continue buying the aforementioned devices and not much changes.
Washington State is hoping things are different this time around. Its new right-to-repair bill goes much further than most and outright bans the sale of electronics not designed to be easily user-repairable. Jeff Morris, the representative who introduced the bill, notes that it was written before Apple’s battery fiasco came to light (in separate news, Apple is now facing an SEC and DOJ investigation into its disclosure practices around its battery issues). “It was introduced before [the throttling] news broke, but that’s become something constituents and legislators have sunk their teeth into,” Morris told Motherboard. “They can say ‘this is what we’re talking about’ and point to this as the type of thing that is accelerating the demise of their technology so they have to buy the next model.”
Incidentally, this was always one of the more ironic risks of Apple’s bad battery decision-making. For years, there were rumors Apple made older devices run more poorly on purpose, to push users into upgrading. By creating its throttling program, Apple ironically put truth to years of rumors. Now its battery throttling program could be used to kickstart the type of laws the company has historically opposed.
But unlike most of the alternative bills proposed across the US, the Washington State bill explicitly outlaws selling parts in the state that adopt certain types of repair restrictions, including smartphone batteries that aren’t user-replaceable. This is the type of feature that proponents of the right-to-repair love, because it could theoretically force smartphone manufacturers to develop products for sale in Washington State that would satisfy the replaceable battery requirement, thereby benefiting customers in every state.
The bill states:
Original manufacturers of digital electronic products sold on or after January 1, 2019, in Washington state are prohibited from designing or manufacturing digital electronic products in such a way as to prevent reasonable diagnostic or repair functions by an independent repair provider. Preventing reasonable diagnostic or repair functions includes permanently affixing a battery in a manner that makes it difficult or impossible to remove.
The battery issue was targeted because gluing these batteries in-place makes them much harder for users to remove and similarly difficult for anyone to recycle at-scale. Motherboard has previously covered how Apple’s guidelines for its various products mandate shredding them, so that no hardware can be recycled or recovered. The company turns the shredded material into commodity-grade particulate for use in new production stock, rather than attempting to recover or recycle any of the valuable components inside its equipment.
The tech industry strongly opposes the Washington State law, claiming that allowing users to repair their own equipment would constitute giving criminals access to tools companies need to lock down their own products. This is generally an argument made against allowing users to modify the firmware on various products, even when said firmware has been used to force individuals to rely on certain dealer networks for equipment service and maintenance.
Apple’s battery issues alone seem unlikely to move the dial on right-to-repair, though we’d still like to see similar protections enshrined into law. Batteries will wear out. Physics demands it. So maybe it makes sense to put the onus for dealing with that fact on the multi-billion dollar companies that build the hardware in the first place, rather than expecting customers to shuck out $79+ to replace a component Apple and other companies knew would eventually fail when they built the phone in the first place.
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