What Apple’s iPhone and other tech products reveal about the bullying tendencies of modern-day monopolies
From smartphones to cars to crucial medical equipment, technological advances have brought with them anti-competitive practices that leave consumers dependent on manufacturers long after they’ve paid. In response, a movement for the right to repair has been on the rise.
Since almost exactly a year ago, you’re no longer obligated to buy a service or maintenance plan from the car manufacturer or dealership when buying a car in South Africa. You can shop around for the best deal without the risk of losing your warranty. Dealerships can’t merely say that the price of the service plan is included in the price of the car. They have to unbundle it so you can choose to opt out.
And when it comes to repairs and parts, you’re free to shop around for a service provider of your liking or use non-original spare parts without voiding your car’s overall warranty. This is all thanks to the Guidelines to Competition in the South African Automotive Aftermarket, which came into effect on 1 July 2021, after years of back-and-forth negotiation
That said, car manufacturers may void the warranty on a part if it is damaged due to the use of inferior parts or faulty workmanship, so it is advisable for motorists to ensure that when using independent service providers, they’re reputable operators.
Still, this is a significant step for the “right to repair” movement, which has been steadily gaining ground around the world over the past decade, as more and more companies have been accused of anti-competitive behaviour.
What is the ‘right to repair’?
“When you buy something, you should have the right to repair it, whether that means taking it to the repair shop of your choice or fixing it yourself. Manufacturers of all kinds of things – smartphones, tractors, wheelchairs, and beyond – unfairly limit their customers’ repair options, making repair more expensive and difficult,” writes Elizabeth Chamberlain for the website, iFixit, a leading pioneer in the right-to-repair movement.
She goes on to describe the right-to-repair movement as a broad international effort working to secure our repair options and prevent limitations. “Right-to-repair laws have three main goals: preserving the right to open your stuff, increasing the availability of the parts and tools you need, and keeping independent repair shops in business,” she adds.
Is it really yours if you can’t open it without the manufacturer’s permission?
Apple in particular has been repeatedly called out by proponents of the movement for making its computers and smartphones nearly impossible to repair without using the company’s own services or tools, as well as for installing restrictive software, or binding consumers to contracts that severely restrict their right to repair their own products.
Back in 2009, the company introduced the pentalobe screw to their MacBook pro, as a fastener for the battery. The screw head had five rounded points, and at that time there was no screwdriver available that could fit it perfectly. This meant that the only way consumers would ever be able to repair anything in the machine that required unscrewing the battery, would be to go through Apple itself. By 2011, a smaller version of the screw appeared on the iPhone 4’s exterior, effectively blocking users and independent repairers from opening the phones.
Decisions like these are often defended by manufacturers as being for security reasons, especially as our phones increasingly hold sensitive information. In 2016, thousands of iPhone 6 users found themselves with useless phones after an Apple iOS update detected that they had their phones repaired at an unauthorised shop. The software update immediately bricked the phones, making them unusable. All users got was an “Error 53” on-screen message. A public outcry ensued, Apple apologised, provided an upgrade to fix the problem, and released a statement that said in part: “We apologise for any inconvenience, this was designed to be a factory test and was not intended to affect customers.”
However, initially, the company told some customers they would have to pay for a replacement iPhone. In fact, this led the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to commence a legal battle with Apple in 2017, which it won in 2018, and Apple had to pay a AU$9-million fine for its actions.
Still more recently, some were reminded of the 2016 incident in November 2021, when it turned out that the Apple’s latest phone, the iPhone 13, completely disabled Face ID if users replaced the screen with an independent repairer. Tech website, The Verge, reported at the time that “repair experts found that swapping out iPhone 13 screens would break Face ID unless you also moved over a tiny control chip from the original screen. It’s a complex process that makes one of the most common types of repairs prohibitively difficult for independent repair shops. (Apple-authorised repair shops, on the other hand, have access to a software tool that can make a phone accept a new screen.)” Notably, the screen was not part of the camera set-up to enable Face ID. Once again, after a public outcry, Apple announced that it would issue a software update to prevent the problem.
The company is also connected to various lobbying efforts to fight legislation that would allow customers to repair their devices independently.
As reported in a May 2021 article published by Bloomberg, Microsoft and Apple Wage War on Gadget Right-to-Repair Laws, 27 US states were considering right-to-repair bills pushed by a cadre of small business owners, hobbyists and activists across the country in 2021. However, by May 2021, more than half had already been voted down or dismissed.
“Microsoft’s top lawyer advocated against a repair bill in its home state. Lobbyists for Google and Amazon.com Inc. swooped into Colorado this year to help quash a proposal. Trade groups representing Apple Inc. successfully buried a version in Nevada. Telecoms, home appliance firms and medical companies also opposed the measures, but few have the lobbying muscle and cash of these technology giants,” reports Bloomberg.
The article points to Apple as being particularly effective compared with the other companies: “Lobbyists representing the iPhone company discreetly told colleagues that it would be willing to endorse repair programmes at local colleges in exchange for killing the bill… Unlike Microsoft, Apple often lets hired guns or trade groups do its advocacy. In New York, an Apple-backed association, the Security Innovation Center, sent around talking points opposing a right-to-repair bill in 2018. Such legislation ‘would have gifted hackers with digital keys to thousands of internet-connected products’,” read the document viewed by Bloomberg News.”
Apple succeeded and the New York bill in question never even made it to a vote. At another meeting, Apple’s lobbyists reportedly brought an iPhone to the meeting with legislators and legislative aides, and proceeded to show them the internal components and claimed that “consumers who are trying to fix their own iPhone could hurt themselves by puncturing the lithium-ion battery”.
Change is coming
The past eight months have brought hope to the right-to-repair movement. In November 2021, Apple seemingly caved in the face of possible legislation and pressure from activists. The company announced a new self-service repair programme, “which will allow customers who are comfortable with completing their own repairs access to Apple genuine parts and tools”.
In March 2022, Samsung announced that “Galaxy device owners will be able to take product repair into their own hands for Samsung’s most popular models, the Galaxy S20 and S21 family of products, and the Galaxy Tab S7+ beginning this summer. Samsung consumers will get access to genuine device parts, repair tools and intuitive, visual, step-by-step repair guides.” The company will also partner with iFixit, which has been at the forefront of the right-to-repair movement for the past two decades, publishing repair manuals and selling repair tools on its websites.
In April 2022, Google followed suit, announcing that “starting later this year, genuine Pixel spare parts will be available for purchase at ifixit.com for Pixel 2 through Pixel 6 Pro, as well as future Pixel models, in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and EU countries where Pixel is available. The full range of spare parts for common Pixel phone repairs things like batteries, replacement displays, cameras and more – will be available either individually or in iFixit Fix Kits, which include tools like screwdriver bits and spudgers.”
A luta continua
While these changes are good news for the movement, activists have pointed out that even as companies claim the “security” defence, the most likely reason for blocking independent repair is simply money, as the companies stand to make far more profit if they have complete control of the device and its parts. In fact, Apple’s self-service repair programme, strictly for out-of-warranty devices, requires would-be repairers to “purchase genuine Apple parts and rent or buy professional-grade tools from the Self Service Repair Store”.
The Verge’s tech writer, Sean Hollister, put it to the test by renting the equipment to change a phone battery. “The thing you should understand about Apple’s home-repair process is that it’s a far cry from traditional DIY if you opt for the kit – which I did, once I saw the repair manual only contains instructions for Apple’s own tools… I expected Apple would send me a small box of screwdrivers, spudgers and pliers; I own a mini iPhone, after all. Instead, I found two giant Pelican cases – 79 pounds of tools – on my front porch. I couldn’t believe just how big and heavy they were considering Apple’s paying to ship them both ways,” the reporter writes. Combined with the cost, which is only a little cheaper than going to the store, Hollister writes that “I’m starting to think Apple doesn’t want us to repair them”.
A sea of computerised electronic devices
Even though some progress has been made, smartphones are just one kind of electronic device in a sea of computerised internet-connected electronic devices, with software that allows manufacturers a certain level of control long after customers have paid. In the US, farming equipment giant John Deere is facing 13 lawsuits for its practices, as it does not support the equipment owner’s right to modify equipment software, citing safety risks, emission compliance and engine performance.
As reported by the Smithsonian magazine back in 2016: “John Deere still owns the software that runs the tractor, and trying to fix it without going to an authorised repair centre could put the farmer afoul of copyright laws. This means that, in order to make legal repairs, a farmer in a rural area might have to haul a broken 15-ton tractor for hundreds of miles to an authorised dealer or repair shop. In the harvest season, this could mean a crushing loss of revenue.”
Worse still, companies that make some medical equipment also continue to limit the right to independent repair, which has led to yet another ongoing fight for the right-to-repair movement. In an article in support of a right-to-repair bill, published by The Lancet in 2021, the authors write: “This bill requires that manufacturers provide, on fair and reasonable terms, access to information and tools that can be used to diagnose, maintain or repair medical equipment. The law also allows owners, lessees and services for medical equipment to repair or maintain crucial medical infrastructure in response to Covid-19. During these extraordinary times, such legislation for the right to repair not only moves the medical field in a more affordable, efficient and sustainable direction, but also enables life-saving services to continue to be available at times of high stress.” The bill is yet to pass the US Senate.
Closer to home in South Africa, as well as the rest of the continent, depending on manufacturers to fix broken hospital equipment can be an even bigger challenge, especially when said manufacturers are based overseas. For one Tanzanian medical device repair technician, the situation is far too urgent to wait while lobbyists and politicians in foreign countries argue it out. The technician, who goes by the name of Frank, created a website where he publishes instructions and manuals to fix a range of crucial hospital equipment, including defibrillators and infant incubators. DM/ML
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