Apple made a surprise U-turn on Thursday. The company that was against the ‘right to repair’ movement just a few years ago became its newest convert.
At one point, Apple lobbyists reportedly told Nebraska state lawmakers that giving users unauthorised repair access would make the state a “mecca” for hackers. Now, the iPhone maker is backing a crucial piece of legislation that will hand consumers and third-party firms the right to fix damaged electronic products.
In a letter to Senator Susan Eggman, sponsorer of California’s ‘right to repair’ bill, Apple endorsed the proposed legislation in its current form as it sees the law would benefit users and protect their privacy and security.
Apple’s support “will calm a lot of worry from those who are concerned about industry compliance,” Hayley Tsukayama, Associate Director, Legislative Activism at Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said.
“I certainly think it helps the bill, and I hope that it will make this bill more attractive to other states,” she added.
A shift in worldview
In an ideal world, if you buy a product, you should be able to do anything you want with it. But that idea of ownership began to change at the start of this millennium as U.S. lawmakers enacted the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, in the late 90s to stem intellectual property theft.
This was a time when people were largely communicating with each other through land-line phones. Mobile handsets were just taking off and dial up connections were enabling entry into the world wide web.
No one crystal-gazing could have seen the Internet-powered smartphone era coming a decade later. Powerful hardware, backed by efficiently and intricately designed software ushered in the mobile telephony era that made handsets smart, speakers talk, and computers thin.
The innovations were not limited to communication-related electronic gadgets. They were impacting several sectors. Today, almost all products manufactured have a microchip that is backed by well-designed software.
Proprietary software has become the apple of the manufacturer’s eye as a growing number of devices are dependent on nimble software to perform tasks. And corporations selling these devices make it hard for consumers to repair them if they fail to work.
In the U.S., large tech firms had made it illegal for consumers and third-party repairers to fix devices that are powered by software codes. These firms took refuge under DMCA to ensure products they sold are only repaired by service centres under their control.
The DMCA, which was enacted just two years before the beginning of this millennium, offered protection to original equipment manufacturers (OEM) under Section 1201 of the Act by barring third-party repairers from breaking software protection codes.
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Copyright Office intervenes
But recently, the U.S. Copyright Office has allowed users to fix devices, including automobiles. In 2021, the office added new exemptions to the Section by allowing broad protection to consumer devices that rely on software codes.
Apart from this, several other states in U.S. have enacted ‘right to repair’ laws that allow consumers to repair their devices to some degree. Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and dozen other U.S. states have passed right to repair laws in different variations. And 40 different states are said to be working on legislations that will let consumers repair their own products.
California is looking to enact its right to repair law after a disappointing loss last year. The SB 244 bill, combined with the Song-Beverly Act, provides specific guidelines on how long OEMs must provide parts and repair support.
The bill also covers a wide range of consumer products that can be repaired without taking it to a company-authorised service centre. It enables the state to bring civil action suits against manufacturers that violate the law with a fine of upto $5,000 per day. Gaming consoles and alarm systems are not covered under the bill due to security concerns.
To assuage concerns from companies over the use of intellectual property, this legislation does not require OEMs to share trade secrets or require them to distribute a product’s source code.
The Cupertino-based company’s change of heart is significant as, in the past, it had been pulled up by antitrust regulators for breaking consumer laws.
In 2018, Australia’s antitrust regulator fined the company $9 million (AUD) in a ‘bricking’ case for using a software update to lock hundreds of iPhones and iPads, and then refusing to unlock them as the devices were serviced by third-party firms. The company later sought to compensate users affected by the “error 53” by releasing a software patch to unlock the devices.
But a growing chorus of ‘right to repair’ activists has been making large tech firms like Apple play by rules. Two years ago, the smartphone maker launched a self-service repair programme that allowed users to purchase parts and rent tools to fix their gadgets. Now, the SB 244 legislation could add more weight to the right to repair movement.
“The California bill is stronger than what passed in New York,” Tsukayama of EFF said. “It does differ from what passed in Minnesota in a few ways – namely California’s bill includes devices sold to, for example, schools. It also builds on California’s existing warranty law.”
A lesson for Tesla
While the ‘right to repair’ movement continues to gain momentum, it is yet to have an impact on automobile makers, particularly Tesla, which is facing legal cases in California.
The world’s biggest electric vehicle maker has been sued for illegally restraining competition in car maintenance and repair, making owners spend a lot of money on fixing their cars. The two lawsuits, filed in a federal court in San Francisco in March, allege that the EV maker designed cars and repair policies in a way that will discourage owners from using third-party shops that are not under Tesla’s control.
Such policies result in excessive wait times, which could have been minimised if the owner had the option of taking their vehicles to a local repair shop, the lawsuit alleged.
While it is unclear which way these lawsuits will go, in the absence of a federal law on the right to repair that covers all consumer products, corporations will continue wield undue influence over buyers, even after selling the product.
Big tech firm’s endorsement for such legislations can help lawmakers “balance the goals of consumer advocates and companies” in making the legislative process straightforward. “Having everyone on board with a single solution is a great way to smooth passage of laws,” Tsukayama said