Back in 1972, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak designed and sold blue boxes that could circumvent telco companies’ billing systems in order to make free long-distance calls. In an interview years later, Steve Jobs said: “Experiences like that taught us the power of ideas. The power of understanding that if you could build this box, you could control 100’s of billions of dollars around the world—that’s a powerful thing. If we wouldn’t have made blue boxes, there would have been no Apple.”
While at first glance it might seem funny that Apple, a company born out of tinkering, also makes it so hard for people to tinker, repair, and refurbish their devices, Steve Jobs’ statement actually clears things up. There are two main takeaways:
- Tinkering/building/repairing = control.
- Control = money
Suddenly, Apple’s positioning against the Right to Repair bills that are now gaining traction across the country makes a whole lot of sense. Back in the day, Apple was the little guy vying for control and today it just happens to be the big guy, at a trillion dollar market cap, fighting tooth and nail to keep its control over “100’s of billions of dollars around the world.”
To some extent it’s the same story for every manufacturer out there—in fact it’s the same story for Big Tech in general. Hardware control, software control, data control. In this crazy world, everyone wants to have a little control. Unfortunately, in this crazy world, if people don’t watch out, control will leave their hands completely.
The fight for the Right to Repair is arguably the last stand which will ultimately determine whether or not that happens.
Right to Repair is the blanket term for laws being proposed to protect the regular person’s ability to choose how and when to repair their devices and electronic equipment. Electronics manufacturers have historically limited this ability by making it difficult for folks to access parts and documentation for the devices they’ve manufactured, or by requiring special software or equipment to do repairs and making these inaccessible. Apple, employing new tactics, has more recently also started a campaign of psychological warfare—“warning” people when replacement parts aren’t purchased and replaced by them or one of their authorized repair shops (even when those parts are original Apple parts to begin with), effectively sowing doubt in customers’ minds about the quality of independently repaired or refurbished devices.
What is the goal of manufacturers trying to erode their customers’ control over repairs, all under the cunning guise of “security”? As usual, if you follow the money you’ll have your answer. At the heart of it, it’s about creating the perfect conditions to make more cash. By controlling the pace at which people buy new electronics and eliminating competition for repairs and refurbishment, manufacturers can take the lion’s share of the combined dollars these industries represent—$16.5 billion (repairs) and $80 billion (refurbished electronics) respectively.
If manufacturers are allowed to have a monopoly on the repair of devices, people would no longer have other options should these manufacturers decide to unilaterally raise their repair prices, or to stop offering entire categories of repair altogether. Right now, for example, 41% of Apple phone repairs done by independent technicians are the types of repairs that Apple does not offer in-house. Imagine if independent repair were eliminated. We could easily deduce that the number of overall Apple repairs would also go down. When devices cannot be repaired or are too expensive to repair, people have no choice but to replace these with new devices at a faster pace.
Isn’t this unconscionable given the current electronic waste crisis? Our decommissioned phones, tablets, and laptops already add to the 50 million tons of electronic waste that we produce each year, 80% of which ends up in the landfill or improperly recycled. And then there’s also the growing digital divide that puts less wealthy communities, with less access to the internet and affordable high-quality hardware, at a serious disadvantage. These problems can only be properly addressed if we allow more repairs, not less.
Right To Repair: The Ripple Effect
In principle, owning something means to have control over that object. When you purchase something, at the very least, you have the right to decide how long you want to hold on to it and what you want to do with it. For the reasons stated above, this would no longer be the case if manufacturers are allowed to consolidate too much power and restrict repairs.
Unlike our personal data or other more abstract “property” in Big Tech, the hardware that we own is more obviously like the rest of our property. Our rightful control as individuals over our hardware and how this control should be exercised is intuitive…it is our most concrete touchpoint to the technology that we use everyday. If we cannot even defend our Right to Repair, essentially our right to control our own devices—our actual physical property—does it seem probable that we will have the strength to rally and defend our less tangible property rights when it comes down to it? It doesn’t look like it.
Our actions today will have a ripple effect on Tech’s landscape tomorrow. When it comes to Tech, the fight for control goes beyond hardware…but it must start with hardware. Right to Repair matters because how this fight goes will ultimately define our relationship as a society to Big Tech going forward. If you don’t want to lose your voice, this is the time to use it. Speak up for your Right to Repair. Visit this page to find your state and it will walk you through the steps so you can start taking back your power—no need for Jobs’ blue box.