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Right to Repair
Written on by James Fenn.
Last updated on .

The consumer’s “right to repair” is becoming an increasingly relevant issue with technical products and devices in modern society. Large corporations like Apple have formed an exclusionary environment for consumers in which people are prevented from repairing their own devices, and are instead belittled for their so-called misuse of a product. As a result of this, customers and third-party repair stores are made to feel at the mercy of a large and monopolous company that is more able to perform repairs. This argument does have opposition: Apple has strongly affirmed that their restrictions on consumer and third-party repairs are solely for the safety of the user and to prevent illegitimate clones of the devices from appearing in the market, and supporters have argued that they hold no liability for ensuring that devices are repaired. However, these points do not justify the misleading behavior that Apple has used and the lies that their support staff have told to customers. This paper aims to provide a clear view of both sides of this debate, and assert the ways in which the “right to repair” can ensure the freedom of the consumer and benefit the communities surrounding these products.

The Apple Store

A Los Angeles Apple Store, bleak and metallic, with an ominous illuminated Apple logo in the center. Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apple_Store_LA.jpg

To the unknowing customer, Apple’s stores have a very shiny appeal. Not only their physical appearance, but the entire brand comes with a sense of cleanliness and perfect simplicity. Their logo embodies this aspect of their design, often printed on a blank white box that their products are shipped in, along with the product name as the only other information provided on the front panel. The devices themselves are also designed in this manner. Most are formed from a single block of aluminium, presenting a clean and unblemished surface to the user, and hiding all of the inner workings of the device. Even using Apple’s software, certain information is hidden from you. On the iPhone, there is no element of the “file system” made visible to the user; the iOS operating system as a whole is opaque as to where any information is stored. Users are given a basic file manager (the “Files” app, in iOS 11), but this does not show what information is really there – it only displays information synced to the user’s iCloud account, not what is physically stored on the device (1). When backing up the data on an iPhone, there is no indication of where the backup is located or how to move or transfer it, it just exists. If the iPhone is dropped in a puddle and will not turn on, then, according to Apple, all of that data is gone. When this happens, the customer can only take their phone to Apple’s nearest “Genius Bar”, where it is obviously repaired by the all-knowing Geniuses. The customer is belittled for their silly mistake of breaking the phone – obviously unrelated to any possible design flaw that it might have – and is then told to buy a new one. They are told that a small amount of water damage cannot be repaired, and that all of their data that is not backed up to the iCloud is now gone.

This is the face that Apple shows their customers, and many people have expressed concern that it is false. As the influential YouTuber Louis Rossman recurrently says, the people working at the “Genius Bar” are not really geniuses; they are just told to speak according to Apple’s “Genius Training Student Workbook”. According to Jay Elliot, who has authored two books about Apple, “you’ve got to be totally wedded to the culture. You’ve got to love the product and what it is. They love the product” (2). A former Apple Store employee has said that they are treated as if they are a part of a cult, forced to involve themselves in product launches, integrating their souls with Apple, and lying to customers about how their devices work. “We usually have to tell them that if they unlock their iPhone, it won’t work. That it’s going to be like a $700 paperweight, and that the antenna will fry itself on T-Mobile. Of course, that’s not true, but that’s what we tell them” (3). This elitist view is propogated by users that believe in Apple’s vision, thinking that the “Geniuses” at Apple know exactly what they are doing, that users are always in the wrong, and that the products they sell are the perfect image of technological innovation.

Louis Rossman and the Counterfeit Batteries

One person who has argued extensively against Apple’s exclusionary behavior is Louis Rossmann, an influential YouTuber and the owner of a small store in New York City that specializes in MacBook repair. As an independent repair shop that is not a part of of Apple’s “Authorized Service Provider” program, Rossmann is classified by Apple as “unauthorized” to repair their products and has few viable methods of obtaining the components necessary to fix them, short of buying broken devices and salvaging them for working parts. However, this does not always work for parts such as batteries, which can deteriorate and become less effective with age. Last year, Rossmann ordered a shipment of laptop batteries from China for a computer that Apple no longer services. When it reached the United States, however, the package was seized by the Customs and Border Protection (CPB) as an illegal and counterfeit product. Apple claims that the computer which they no longer service is a “vintage” product, which makes illegitimate parts such as the ones that Rossmann ordered illegal under US law – specifically, the CPB took issue with Apple’s logo being used on the batteries, and not the batteries themselves. As Rossmann says, “There has to be a line where putting your logo somewhere no longer means ‘this can be confiscated at the border’”. Louis Rossmann is not the only person experiencing these problems, either. Jessa Jones, another independent repair professional, had a shipment of iPhone screens seized in the same year. According to Rossman, “the difference between counterfeiting and refurbishing is going to be the next big battle” between the independent repair profession and Apple (4).

Apple Authorized Service Providers and the Broken iMac Pro

For repair stores to qualify as one of Apple’s Authorized Service Providers (AASPs), they must meet a plethora of requirements for how they deal with customers. One of these requirements is that they must buy the parts for a repair directly from Apple, leaving them with a questionable profit margin and unable to compete with other stores in regards to how much their repairs cost. In addition, when they order a part from Apple, they are held to strict standards about how they use it – it must go into an Apple device and cannot be sold separately to a customer or they might lose their certification. Not only does the business need to provide Apple with complete and accurate information of their sales and financial records, but all of their technicians need to be certified as well, through Apple’s own training program and classes – which, of course, are not free (5). There is more than just one certification, though – Apple has an individual certification for each of their devices, and AASPs cannot sell a repair for a device unless they have a technician that is certified (through Apple’s program) to repair it. The impact that all of these requirements have on the customer was brought to fruition when Linus Sebastian, of the YouTube channel “Linus Tech Tips”, detailed their experience trying to fix a broken iMac Pro. Because they took the device apart and broke it themselves, they were willing to pay to have it repaired, but the Apple Store refused to do so. When contacting a local AASP, Sebastian found out that they were able to order the parts, but could not approve the sale because they did not have the Apple Pro certification – which, according to several AASP employees, did not actually exist yet (6). Because Apple is so restrictive about who can repair their devices, they should be held to a standard that they are able to fix the products that they sell – similar to buying a car, it should be possible to repair even if it is broken immediately after its release. The problem is that human mistakes are frequent, and consumers have no way to get their $5000 metallic obelisk to function again if they end up breaking it, short of buying a new one. Apple’s unwillingness to support their own devices shows an obvious lack of care for their end users, and is one of the main reasons that “right to repair” is such an important issue today.

Future Worries: The T2 Chip Causes Yet More Problems

In a blog post by iFixit, a company that offers tools and repair guides with a clear focus on enabling people to understand and repair their electronic devices by themselves, Adam O’Camb details a difference in new versions of Apple’s products which ensure that this issue will only get worse. According to O’Camb, Apple’s new T2 chip will require a specific configuration suite in order to complete repairs – a software that is only available to authorized and Apple-certified “professionals”. After replacing a part, the configuration suite connects to Apple’s server to perform performance and compatibility checks for new parts. As described by Apple, “Without this software, an internet connection, and approval from Apple’s servers, the repair is considered incomplete and the computer is rendered inoperable” (7). This functionality effectively prevents any significant repairs by consumers to their own devices, let alone giving “unauthorized” repair centers great reason to worry about their future profit.

Nebraska Legislation Bill 67

The opposing arguments to these problems all seem to state in some form that Apple’s restrictions aiming to prevent people from repairing their own devices do so righteously – that people are protected from messing around for their own and others safety. When Apple lobbied against a “right to repair” proposal in Nebraska in 2017, Apple representative Steve Kester warned that the state would become “a Mecca for bad actors” if the bill were passed. According to them, the legislation could provide hackers and other unsavory characters “hardware-level access to Apple products”. However, it is important to recognize the bias that Apple has to make these claims; supporters of the bill have asserted that many of the companies opposing it “are only interested in holding sway over the lucrative repair industry”, and that opening up the market would instead “present consumers with more choices” (8). The tech industry’s stance on this is clear, though, as shown by Apple and other companies’ strong arguments against this legislation. Right to Repair has a great amount of relevance for users living in rural areas, as companies often position their repair centers in major cities and areas with a large population. As long as companies like Apple restrict the places that people are allowed to go to repairs, this issue will continue. Currently, 17 states - including Nebraska - have introduced legislation that would force Apple to provide repair manuals and spare parts to third parties. It is worth noticing that if even one of these states passes the bill, its impact would span far outside that, as it is likely that large companies will not want to operate differently in a specific state. Quoting the NY State Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, “[…] that could actually pass Right to Repair for the world, because manufactures aren’t going to provide products differently to people in one jurisdiction. They want to simplify their operations” (9).

Conclusion

The variety of points and arguments that have been provided in this paper show that “Right to Repair” is an issue of drastic importance today. As the owner of a maintainable product that is built from the same parts used in thousands of other devices, consumers should not be prevented from performing their own repairs and taking their devices apart. There are many situations where someone may want to do this, and it is often the case that users are unable to have their devices serviced by someone that is authorized to do so. While the stance of this article is clear, it should be noted that “Right to Repair” extends far beyond the situations that this paper has discussed. The legislation being proposed affects a vast area of products including any electronics with embedded software - home appliances, medical devices, and heavy machinery are some notable examples. The discourse surrounding this movement could have vast effects on how customers are able to interact with companies worldwide.

For more information about the Right to Repair movement, see repair.org.

Source Citations

  1. "Everything You Need to Know about the New Files App on IOS 11", by Charlie Sorrel
    https://www.cultofmac.com/485980/everything-you-need-to-know-about-new-files-app-ios-11/
  2. "The Apple Store Guide to Insanely Great Customer Service", by Humayun Khan
    https://www.shopify.com/retail/119535811-the-apple-store-guide-to-insanely-great-customer-service
  3. "Confessions of an Apple Store Employee", by Anonymous
    https://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/gadgets/a6520/confessions-of-an-apple-store-employee/
  4. "DHS Seized Aftermarket Apple Laptop Batteries From Independent Repair Expert Louis Rossman", by Matthew Gault and Jason Koebler
    https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/a3ppvj/dhs-seized-aftermarket-apple-laptop-batteries-from-independent-repair-expert-louis-rossman
  5. "Authorized Service Provider Program", by Apple
    https://support.apple.com/en-lamr/aasp-program
  6. "Popular YouTuber Says Apple Won't Fix His IMac Pro Damaged While Disassembled", by Joe Rossignol
    https://www.macrumors.com/2018/04/18/linus-tech-tips-imac-pro-repair-video/
  7. "Apple's Secret Repair Kill Switch Hasn't Been Activated - Yet", by Adam O'Camb
    https://ifixit.org/blog/11673/t2-mac-repairs-test/
  8. "Apple Lobbies against 'Right to Repair' Proposal in Nebraska", by Mikey Campbell
    https://appleinsider.com/articles/17/03/09/apple-lobbies-against-right-to-repair-proposal-in-nebraska
  9. "Apple accused of overpricing, restricting device repairs", by Alex Shprintsen
    https://www.cbc.ca/news/thenational/complete-control-apple-accused-of-overpricing-restricting-device-repairs-1.4859099
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