Dare to Repair? Let’s try Steelmanning

Greed. Twisted Capitalism. An Orwellian farm jarring with bleeps (not bleats). Pretzel-ite Consumerism. May be even Caveat Venditor. There are many straws that we can use here.

And if they run out drilling water from a glass half empty, there’s always some iron one can swing to make brutal dents. We can go on and on about EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) or EEE (equipment not intended for re-use) or toxic side-effects of burning and re-purposing or the maddening rate at which technologies are piling up in graveyards (remember how CRT was turned stale by flat panels in the blink of an eye).

After all, there is enough malleable metal flanking us in all varieties of sheets. If we flip some at the Global E-waste Monitor – 2017 report (by United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna); we would be almost striking the iron hot.

Could the timing to boil the metal be any better? The report hammers so well how today ‘many people own more than one information and communication technology (ICT) device, and replacement cycles for mobile phones and computers, and also for other devices and equipment, are becoming shorter.’ Hold the words ‘replacement cycle’ and ‘shorter’ in your mind’s back-burner, will you?

Meanwhile, there is a staggering alloy (of all the countries in the world Asia was the region that generated, by far, the largest amount of e-waste i.e.18.2 Mt in 2016 – by the way) of 4,500 Eiffel Towers each year that we are staring at (yes darling, e-waste is galloping fast and would touch 52.2 million metric tonnes, or 6.8 kg/inh, by 2021 without a wheeze)!

But you know what’s really mind-bending underneath these numbers? The slap-like sound that wakes you up when you see how the average smartphone lifecycle is hardly stretching beyond 18 months to 2 years. There’s more to the seismic jolt. Only 66 per cent of the world population is covered by national e-waste management laws! Here’s another word to tuck in that mind’s pocket – ‘smartphone lifecycle’.

No matter how pithily the report argues about Circular economy models; and why they need to be adopted to encourage closing the loop of materials; recycling, reusing etc. – well, let’s not fool ourselves- remain, argh, a rock to be borne by consumerism-weaned Sisyphus every effing next year. The weight mounts up further- thanks to the rise of “a ‘throwaway society’, and the trend to throw away and buy something new rather than keep and repair.”

But now pull out those words we asked you to cling on to and pause. Look closer at this part of a sentence in the report that stays unfinished in more ways than one: “…some users may decide to buy new products to avoid any hassle due to warranty and data security issues of repaired products.”

If in 2014, EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency) Waste Management Hierarchy underlined improved life cycle management of electronics, through source reduction of materials used, increasing reuse, refurbishing, extending the life of products, and recycling of electronics for taking the e-waste bull by its horns; nothing’s changed much as 2017’s Global e-waste reckoner still struggles to make sense of the bull (of manufacturer’s responsibility around longevity, durability, reusability and recyclability) walking disoriented inside the china-shop of the ‘right to repair‘.

No, we are not dismissing the role that a consumer plays here. On the contrary, that’s where the steel comes in.

Can s/he play this role more easily, confidently and without any deterrents (visible or latent)? This question is not made for a monosyllabic answer. But we will not talk about a customer’s fundamental right to fix what is hers/his. We will also not wax endlessly about the parallel revenue-streams wherein closed-box products pour gold for a manufacturer. None of the ethical ferrous farrago either.

It’s encouraging to see e-waste being reincarnated as Olympic medals in Japan and legal hawks fighting over pro-repair regulations in the US. So today, we will take that very drift.

We will just invoke logic. We will go chin-up against what the other side puts in the ring whenever this debate erupts – before it veers off under the shadow of other so-called ‘head’lines.

Let’s talk about safety, expertise, copyrights, innovation, warranties etc. for a change. Let’s test steel with someone as sharp, as forthright, someone searing with intelligence and gushing with passion for this crusade who ardently contends “People hold onto their stuff until they break” – someone who is Gay Gordon-Byrne, Executive Director of The Repair Association.

Because sometimes, it is simply sublime to watch a well-rounded brain being pitted against …just a brain.

Solvitur ambulando, shall we?

What’s your take on the recent debates unfolding in the realm of ‘Right to repair’? How crucial and helpful is the legislation-angle for this area?

We founded the Digital Right to Repair Coalition aka The Repair Association in 2013 specifically to promote Right to Repair legislation. The debates you see are largely the result of our success in stimulating interest. All of us need to be able to repair our stuff, or it gets thrown in the trash at the moment of its first glitch. The most obvious need for independent repair came up in the context of automobiles – and they fought for right to repair for about 10 years before winning. Now that most consumers also own a cell phone – the same need for repair has become personal and is driving the overall fight which must include everything with a chip to be effective.

We decided to work on legislation in states and not in courts or with the federal government because the automobile industry successfully passed an Automotive Right to Repair law in 2012 in Massachusetts (a state) and was going to be passed in other states as well. It was the legislation that created the incentive for the entire auto industry in the US to negotiate a national agreement for Right to Repair. We simply follow their model and expect a similar outcome.

Legislation is proving crucial because various standards bodies have attempted to address repair issues within the context of environmental stewardship and failed. OEMs largely control the standards groups and as they seek consensus – they drop core principles. OEMS are also claiming they will be repair-friendly or environmentally responsible at some vague point in the future – but there is no compelling reason for them to make those changes until forced. Again – the auto industry went through the same experiences and was only successful once they passed legislation in states.

Gay Gordon – from and for Right to Repair

Have companies made it really that discouraging and knotty to repair what they sell? Is the difficulty level high for DIY (Do It Yourself) individuals or for independent-repair experts as well?

Yes and Yes. The vast majority of OEMs are under pressure to improve profits. It is simply easy to discourage repair and make more money. It takes a very principled company to eschew the monopoly and skip the profit potential. The difficulty level is just as high for DIY as for independent repair techs – if not worse for those in business. DIY hobbyists are more likely to ignore copyright law and download documentation from the internet or buy bootleg copies of diagnostics with almost no risk of being pursued. Businesses need to operate under the law or be driven out of business by litigation by OEMs.

How does this deterrent play out in case of high-scale corporate customers and their maintenance-contracts?

Corporate customers are very risk-adverse. The larger the corporation – the less risk any will take – including overpaying massively for repair contracts that they know to be inflated and unfair. The current situation with repair of enterprise equipment is almost total monopoly by OEMs, and only a relative few brands are independently repaired at any scale. Large ISPs and used equipment traders that support the used market are enthusiastic supporters of Right to Repair. Growth in these segments is impossible without de-monopolization.

Software: That’s just a new wrinkle in marketing

Is this becoming easy or justified due to increased software’ and services’ components in today’s products? 

Someone figured out that they would demand a license for embedded software and that contract has created the excuse for monopolization of repair. The products haven’t changed and the software was always there –but it’s a new wrinkle in marketing in the past 15 or so years that has created this problem globally.

What products (beyond the usual smartphones and gadgets) suffer with this barrier?

Literally everything with a chip is being monopolized for repair ranging from repair of thermostats, appliances, watches, tractors, TVs, forklifts, aircraft, motorcycles and everything internet. I cannot think of an industry that has escaped.
How can we interpret the warranty and copyright/DRM argument here?

The US Copyright Office spent a year investigating the relationship of these End User License Agreements (EULA) and other similar claims and determined that the DMCA (our body of copyright law) allows for repair, as intended by Congress, and that consumers are not violating copyright law when making repairs. However, if they have signed a contract that states they won’t repair their equipment or other limitations – they would be in breach of contract. The OEM could pursue customers for breach in court – but they’d also have to prove they were harmed economically. That wouldn’t likely work as a legal strategy and would be a Public Relations nightmare we would gleefully promote.

Warranties are massively misunderstood here in the US. Warranties are marketing choices and represent promises by the manufacturer to take care of defects within a set period of time. Buyers are not obligated to use the offer and under US law it’s illegal for manufacturers to void a consumer warranty for either using independent repair or using a non-OEM original part. Right to Repair bills have nothing to do with warranty as it’s already the option of the owner to decide how best to get their purchases repaired – even under warranty.

Remember how Spare Button and Threads used to be the mark of a good brand? (Courtesy Bergans)

So the innovation argument is a spanner?

The innovation argument is silly and backwards. Fixing equipment isn’t keeping people from innovating – it’s only helping the customer enjoy their purchase a bit longer. Professors of engineering and computer science have been very clear that repair and tinkering is a gateway to learning, and that if kids don’t get their hands inside technology to explore – they aren’t going to be innovators in the future. R2R (Right to Repair) doesn’t prevent manufacturers from building instant e-waste, which is a different social problem also being argued legislatively and by standards bodies such as WEEE in the EU and IEEE and others here in the US.

DRM is controlled by Copyright Law here in the US. We argue every 3 years for exemptions to DRM and largely win – because most products that use DRM aren’t preventing any actual infringement, just preventing users from legally tinkering with their software. DRM was never intended to prevent use – just prevent people from developing products that enabled copyright infringement – such as making illegal copies of computer games or DVDs.

Even if we have laws and experts working in the favour of this right, what about lockdowns, update-issues (HP Printer’s case, Ford) and dampeners like the Error 53 scandal?

OEMs haven’t been challenged legally for these abuses because consumers for the most part aren’t capable of taking OEMs to court. It’s expensive and takes years. This is why Consumer Protection law in the US is able to make laws, such as Right to Repair that would impose fines or other simple penalties on OEMS that violate these laws without litigation. For example – NY is considering a Right to Repair bill that has a $500 per incident fine imposed by the state attorney general. If Apple had bricked 100,000 phones in NY under Error 53 – the AG might have collected a $50 million fine. That would probably dissuade Apple from doing the same in the future.

The reasoning posited by the likes of Apple and AT&T here seems plausible – more accidents and privacy being jeopardised easily – would you agree?

Apple cooked up the ruse about privacy after 4 years of being unable to persuade legislators that safety was any of their business. As to safety – when equipment is purchased – safety of use becomes the responsibility of the buyer. The contract ALWAYS disclaims any responsibility for accidents of use (unless the equipment itself was defective – such as with Takaka Air Bags) and it’s literally not true that Apple (or others) are responsible. IF they were responsible – consider the high volume of traffic fatalities due to cell phone use – where Apple remains entirely outside of those errors. The change of ownership is the END of their claim. Again, most people don’t understand the contract and are easily misled to think Apple is looking out for them.

With reference to privacy – Apple is relying upon widespread ignorance and fear to promote the idea that hardware repair has anything to do with data privacy or cyber security. We’ve asked for examples. Legislators have asked for examples. Reporters have asked for examples and none has been forthcoming.

Any thoughts on the secret enclaves that Apple and AMD examples have shown when it comes to open-ness aiding a device’s vulnerability to hackers?

HOW might repair create new security risks? We’d like to know. This is very serious claim to be making without evidence. If there are good reasons to exempt certain types of equipment from R2R – legislators will gladly take steps to improve their bills.

So far as I can tell, the only potential risk of data loss is related to repair of locally attached or on-board data storage. If an unscrupulous tech were handed a device with unencrypted data, they could view it as could anyone else if they were also given the user password. Repair techs don’t need user passwords to make repairs – it’s for the equipment owner to input the password after the repair is complete to confirm they are satisfied. These relationships between data, tech, and passwords have been ongoing since the dawn of the computer era and literally nothing changes with R2R.

Everything else related to cyber risk occurs within the network and under the control of networking software and encryption. Even repairs to security devices, such as security camera, are made outside of the network. A broken camera isn’t online until repaired. Once up and running, operating systems, applications and encryption routines are also rebooted and nothing about those functions is part of repair.
We don’t need to guess. Apple recently affirmed that their security remains intact even with their entire source code for booting was revealed on the internet. Right to Repair requires access to the ability to restore the complied version of the boot code or IOS if lost or corrupted, not the source code. It follows that if the source code is not a security risk, then restoring the compiled version cannot be a risk.

Hackers gain nothing under R2R. Anything that is posted on the internet for OEM repair techs is also available to find illegally. OEMs do not post trade secrets online for anyone – not even their trusted repair techs. R2R doesn’t ask for anything that is not already being distributed to repair techs and subcontractors. Logically – the least useful equipment for hackers to penetrate through a network is that which is offline and powered down for repair.

What has hardware repair got to do with privacy? (Image courtesy Freedigital photos)

Should such activism-led changes focus on parts or the documentation side or both or something else too?

Technology repair requires 5 types of information and materials. Without access to all 5 – monopolies remain. They are:

a) Service documentation including a schematic (free)
b) Diagnostics (if sold separately– at fair and reasonable prices)
c) Specialty tools (at fair and reasonable prices)
d) Service parts (at fair and reasonable prices)
e) Firmware with safety and security patches and fixes (free)

We use the further standard of access the same version of the above as already provided to OEM techs or subcontractors. OEMs will have very little difficulty with compliance since they already produce all of the above.

How helpful would such regulatory changes be for the cause of repurposing products, better degaussing or curbing e-waste? 

The more equipment is repaired, the longer it stays in use before being recycled. This alone has the potential to dramatically decrease the rate of increase of e-waste, which has garnered support from everyone regardless of their politics. (Degaussing is a data destruction technique for hard drives and is unrelated to e-waste other than to help protect user data usually as a fee for service).

Would such changes help at all in an age where customers have got used to changing products too quickly; and where obsolescence and product-lifecycles have undergone massive shifts?

I disagree with the notion that consumers want to buy new at the first opportunity. My experience (which goes back into the 1970s with used computer sales and service) is that people hold onto their stuff until they break. It’s that first call for repair that sends people shopping. If the repair is inexpensive relative to a replacement – most people pick repair. The problem for a world where the OEMs monopolise repair is that they alone determine the price of repair. It is obvious that Apple makes repairs costly to drive people to replace older models. This is not a new technique and has been practiced since the dawn of time.

Consumer Reports did a study several years ago about the price of repair and replacement and flatly advised consumers to buy a replacement if the cost of repair was more than 50 per cent of the replacement price.  Without competition – that price comparison is unrelated to the actual cost of parts and labor. This is why competition for repair is essential.

— Pratima H


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