The fight for the right to repair remains an active battle as various companies and lawmakers claim worries around safety, cybersecurity, and design innovation. But with concerns about e-waste, device quality, and the health of independent repair shops mounting, advocates like iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens are keeping their gloves up. In the lead up to Ars Technica’s first annual Ars Frontiers event in Washington, DC, last week, we held a livestream with Wiens exploring this critical tech issue.
Making a federal case of it
Tech repairs got complicated in 1998 when Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [PDF]. Section 1201 of the copyright law essentially made it illegal to distribute tools for, or to break encryption on, manufactured products. Created with DVD piracy in mind, it made fixing things like computers and tractors significantly harder, if not illegal, without manufacturer permission. It also represented “a total sea change from what historic property rights have been,” Wiens said.
This makes Washington, DC, the primary battleground for the fight for the right to repair.
“Because this law was passed at the federal level, the states can’t preempt. Congress at the federal level reset copyright policy. This fix has to happen at the US federal level,” Wiens told Ars Technica during the Road to Frontiers talk.
The good news is that every three years, the US Copyright Office holds hearings to discuss potential exemptions. Right to repair advocates are hoping Congress will schedule this year’s hearing soon.
Wiens also highlighted the passing of the Freedom to Repair Act [PDF] introduced earlier this year as critical for addressing Section 1201 and creating a permanent exemption for repairing tech products.
Apple’s promising, imperfect progress
Wiens applauded the program, which provides repair manuals for the iPhone 12, 13, and newest SE and will eventually extend to computers. He emphasized how hard it is for iFixit to reverse-engineer such products to determine important repair details, like whether a specific screw is 1 or 1.1 mm.
Apple’s program also offers repair tools, particularly benefiting independent repair shops, Wiens noted. But that doesn’t mean Apple can’t be more repair-friendly.
“What Apple is doing wrong in this case is they continue to embark on this strategy where they have paired specific parts to the phone,” Wiens explained.
“If you take two brand-new iPhone 13s and you swap the screens, you’re not necessarily going to get all the functionality that you would expect, which is strange because if you take two cars and you swap the engines, they work just fine. … You take two Samsungs, and you swap the screens, they work just fine.”
The exec worries that despite Apple claiming it wants to provide a detailed service history, this tactic can result in the banning of aftermarket parts.
“The repair economy, the circular economy around iPhones, is significant. … It creates a lot of jobs,” Wiens said. “Apple could easily short-circuit that economy by employing these cryptographic locks to tie parts to phones. Then this would tie into Section 1201 because it might potentially be illegal to circumvent those locks to make an aftermarket part work again.”
A repairable future
Wiens envisioned a world where gadgets not only last longer but where you may also build relationships with local businesses to keep your products functioning. He lamented the loss of businesses like local camera and TV repair shops extinguished by vendors no longer supplying parts and tools.
“I think it’s incumbent on all of us to say, what kind of economy do we want? Do we want a main street where we have local people that know how to fix and maintain our things? Or do we want a factory assembly line where we manufacture stuff in Asia, we dump it here, use it for however long it works, and then there’s no maintenance plan for it,” Wiens said.
He also discussed the idea of giving gadgets second and even third lives: An aged smartphone could become a baby monitor or a smart thermostat.
“I think we should be talking about lifespans of smartphones in terms of 20, 25 years,” Wiens said.