Repair is one of the secret keys to a better life. Repairs keep our gadgets in use longer (saving our pocketbooks) and divert e-waste from landfills or toxic recycling processes (saving our planet). Repair is an engine of community prosperity: when you get your phone screen fixed at your corner repair shop, your money goes to a locally owned small business (my daughter and the phone screen guy’s daughter go to the same school and he always tut-tuts over the state of my chipped and dented phone at parent-teacher nights).
Fixing stuff has deep roots in the American psyche, from the motorheads who rebuilt and souped-up their cars, to the farmers whose ingenuity wrung every last bit of value out of their heavy equipment, to the electronics tinkerers who are lionized today as some of the founders of Silicon Valley.
Repairs are amazing: they account for up to 4% of GDP, create local jobs (fix a ton of electronics and generate 200 jobs, send a ton of electronics to a dump to be dismantled and recycled and you create a measly 15 jobs, along with a mountain of toxic waste – reuse is always greener than recycling), and they generate a stream of low-cost, refurbished devices and products that are within reach of low-income Americans.
The twenty-first century should be a golden age of repairs. A simple web-search can yield up instructions for fixing your stuff, a wealth of replacement-part options, and thriving communities of other people in the same boat as you, ready to brainstorm solutions when you hit a wall.
But instead, digital technology has been a godsend for big corporations that want to control how you use, fix, and replace your property.
One trick is to put small, inexpensive microprocessors on each part in a complex product — everything from tractors to phones — that force you to use the manufacturer’s authorized parts and service technicians. Third-party parts may be functionally identical to the manufacturer’s own parts (or even better!), but your device won’t recognize them unless they have the manufacturer’s “security” chip and its associated cryptographic authentication systems. Even if you put an original manufacturer’s part in your device (say, one you’ve bought from the manufacturer or harvested from a scrapped system), some devices won’t start using the original part until an authorized service technician inputs an activation code.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, corporations routinely withhold service manuals, lists of diagnostic codes, and parts.
This would be merely unconscionable and obnoxious, but thanks to some toxic technology laws, these practices become more than a hurdle for independent service technicians to overcome – they become a legal risk.
Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA 1201) contains broad prohibitions on bypassing “access controls” for “copyrighted works,” with potentially stiff criminal penalties (five years in prison and a $500,000 fine for a first offense) for “commercial trafficking” in tools to bypass an access control. Manufacturers have interpreted this law very broadly, asserting that the software in their gadgets – cars, medical implants, HVAC systems and thermostats, phones, TVs, etc. – is a “copyrighted work” and the systems that block independent service (checks for original parts, activation codes for new parts, access to diagnostic systems) are “access controls.” If the firmware in your car is a “copyrighted work” and the system that stops it from recognizing a new engine part is an “access control” then your auto manufacturer can threaten a competitor with civil prosecution and prison time for making a gadget that allows your corner mechanic to figure out what’s wrong with your car and fix it.
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.
The corporate blowback from these bills was massive: with so much money at stake when it comes to monopolizing repair, and so many manufacturers using Big Tech’s tricks for freezing out indie service, millions were on the line, and the lobbying money managed to stifle these proposals – for now.
But there is nothing harder to kill than an idea whose time has come. This is the golden age of repairs, a moment made for a renaissance of shade-tree mechanics, electronics tinkerers, jackleg fixit shops, and mom-and-pop service depots. It has to be: our planet, our pocketbooks, and our neighborhoods all benefit when our property lasts longer, works better and does more.
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Author: Cory Doctorow