Laptop broken? How California’s Right to Repair movement is trying to make it easier to fix your electronics


Chris Culhane is not a fan of planned obsolescence when it comes to broken electronics.

“I’m still in favor of repair,” the San Francisco accountant said as he waited at San Francisco Computer Repair, an independent store in West SOMA, to retrieve data from his dead Dell laptop. “If you put three thousand dollars in a computer and something happens, I’d like to think you could fix it, wouldn’t you?”

That was the philosophy behind California’s SB 983, “Right to Repair” bill, which died in committee Thursday after supporters believed it would pass. The bill, which would have been the first of its kind in the United States, would have required manufacturers of electronic equipment such as cell phones, game consoles, washing machines and dryers, computers – almost anything with a chip – to ease the way to fixing broken things by providing parts, tools and manuals at reasonable prices.

Proponents touted it as a no-brainer to save consumers money and reduce e-waste. But the electronics industry says it could have created a free-for-all, allowing hackers to thrive, unauthorized people to access sensitive information and trade secrets to be breached.

Although the California bill failed, other states are pursuing similar legislation and there is also a federal bill pending.

“Consumers currently can’t repair everything from their smartphone to their refrigerator,” said Kevin O’Reilly, director of the Right to Repair campaign at the US Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG. He is also associated with CALPIRG.

O’Reilly’s take: Manufacturers have a vested interest in making things hard to fix. They can charge “an arm and a leg” for repairs and use those high costs to entice consumers to buy shiny new devices.

However, many companies see it differently, defending their copyright rights as a reason to oppose such laws. It’s also why O’Reilly wasn’t too surprised that the bill failed.

“We’re up against the rights of some of the biggest companies in the world,” O’Reilly said. “Apple and Google and other tech giants either lobbied against the bill or supported organizations that lobbied against the bill.”

Meanwhile, the right to repair movement is gaining momentum with President Biden as a vocal advocate. In July 2021, he asked the Federal Trade Commission to write rules on the right to repair. The FTC said it would target the relief restrictions as violations of antitrust laws.

Technician Del Jaljaa uses a soldering tool while repairing a circuit board at a rework station at San Francisco Computer Repair.

Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

In recent months, major tech players have opened up limited ways to help consumers fix things.

Apple said it would sell manuals, parts and tools, but only to owners of the iPhone 12 and 13 models. Microsoft said it was investigating repair options for its computer accessories. Google will sell spare parts for Pixel smartphones through iFixit, a self-proclaimed “repair wikipedia.”

Based in San Luis Obispo, iFixit maintains a gargantuan database of repair manuals and sells tools, such as a nifty $70 kit with 64 screwdriver bits to fit most tiny proprietary screws that manufacturers use in their hardware.

Kyle Wiens co-founded iFixit in his Cal Poly dorm in 2003, then ran it out of a garage for a decade. Now it helps millions of people a month — users and repair shops — to repair products, he said.

Despite their repair rights evangelism, the Wiens-based company has been embroiled in copyright disputes with some manufacturers of products they help people repair.

“Back then, people were fixing things,” Wiens said. “There was a TV repair shop in every neighborhood. Dishwashers and devices used to print diagrams inside. (Some still do.)

But today, independent repair shops are shrinking because it’s an uphill battle for them to get the supplies and information they need, especially for computers and smartphones. A CALPIRG survey of 63 local repair shops published this week found that 59% said they may have to close without the Right to Repair Bill passing.

Parts and manuals “are our bloodline,” said Del Jaljaa, owner of San Francisco Computer Repair in the western part of SOMA, which repairs up to 200 computers a month. “We need more tools, parts and schematics, and that’s what (the big manufacturers) are trying to stop the stores from getting.”

Right now it’s like a scavenger hunt to collect materials. Parts can be sourced from Amazon or eBay or salvaged from broken machines. “We order old parts together for Frankenstein computers,” said his partner, Jon Kennedy.

The schematics – essentially a map of the motherboard – come from China, where they’re often reverse-engineered, which means they can be inaccurate. Or, “someone is risking their employment at a (facility) in Taiwan or a factory in China” to disclose them, Kennedy said. “A lot of times it’s in the middle of a (product) review so they’re very incomplete.”

Technician Jon Kennedy builds a gamer's computer while working at San Francisco Computer Repair.

Technician Jon Kennedy builds a gamer’s computer while working at San Francisco Computer Repair.

Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

He’d like to have full schematics, “but at least draw us a fucking wiring diagram,” Kennedy said. “That’s all we need; a quick one showing what the parts are and how they are put together. Give us the information; sell us the parts; and we will fix it.

Apple used to provide diagnostic software but no longer does, he said. “We rely on other people in forums on the web who we can ask for answers or solutions.”

Although a do-it-yourselfer could have taken advantage of the right to repair, the main purpose was to support independent repair shops, which often charge lower rates than computer and phone manufacturers.

“Very few people really want to fix their own stuff, but the idea that you can find someone in your town to help you or the nerdy kid around here – that’s the breakthrough,” Gay Gordon-Byrne said. , executive director of the Repair Association. , a trade group for independent repair shops, whose TED talk on the issue has racked up more than a million views.

“If you own something like a cell phone or a toaster or a fridge and want a competitive quote for the repair, you’re out of luck,” she said. “Manufacturers have come to monopolize repairs. This basically kills the independent option for everything.

But some tech giants see the right to repair movement in almost apocalyptic terms.

Manuals and tools mandates “pose unique security and hacking risks to the video game ecosystem,” according to a statement from the Entertainment Software Association. The right to repair could open the floodgates to illegal copying of video games, which can cost as much to produce as blockbuster movies, he said,

Technet, the trade group representing hundreds of IT companies, also doubts the idea.

“Consumers, businesses of all sizes, schools and hospitals need to know that the people who repair their products will do so safely, securely and correctly,” said Dylan Hoffman, TechNet’s executive director for California and the southwest, in a press release. “So-called ‘right to repair’ bills would seriously undermine consumer privacy and security by providing sensitive security information and equipment to anyone who wants it, whether trained, certified or vetted. ”

But another industry group has flip-flopped on the right to repair. CompTIA (Computer Technology Industry Association), which provides certificates to repair and computer professionals, had lobbied against the idea, but two years ago said it would stop doing so, after being outraged by many of its members, who said they needed manuals and tools to do their job.

Tools are readily available next to a rework station at San Francisco Computer Repair.

Tools are readily available next to a rework station at San Francisco Computer Repair.

Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

Defenders of the right to repair highlight an ecological aspect: reducing the throwaway culture.

“Electrical waste is the fastest growing part of our municipal waste stream,” O’Reilly said. “California households produce 1.1 million tons of electronic waste each year. Electronic waste releases toxic chemicals into the environment. E-waste accounts for 2% of the waste stream, but 70% of its toxicity. »

In addition, the manufacture of new products consumes energy and raw materials. If Americans kept their phones on average one more year, it would be equivalent to reducing carbon emissions by taking 636,000 cars off the road, according to a PIRG study.

California households can save $4.3 billion a year by choosing to repair rather than replace certain household goods, according to CALPIRG.

Some areas, such as medical and agricultural equipment, are not part of the bill. Automakers already agreed to let independent mechanics access car diagnostic tools a decade ago after Massachusetts passed the Motor Vehicle Owners Right to Repair Act.

It’s too easy to have accidents with electronics, said Culhane, the owner of the dead Dell laptop. “There are things that happen to anyone,” he said. “It will be rare that you have a computer for years and not spill a little coffee on it.”

O’Reilly said the fight for these rights is not over. we will be back when the new legislative session begins next year. “We’ll be looking for more opportunities to give Californians the repair options they say they want.”

Carolyn Said is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: csaid@sfchronicle.comTwitter: @csaid


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