Right to Repair: Why is it so difficult to fix our electronics?

Right to Repair: Why is it so difficult to fix our electronics?

Click to play video: 'Right to Repair: Inside the movement fighting for all consumers'

Right to Repair: Inside the movement fighting for all consumers

John Fadel claims he can fix anything that plugs in. The inside of his shop, American Electronics, is a testament to that. The walls are lined with radios from the 1930s, speakers, VCR players, and desktop computers.

On this day, parts from a record player from the ’40s and a Sony CD stereo system sit side by side on his worktable. The generational knowledge passed down from his father, paired with formal engineering training, should have been everything Fadel needed to carry on the family trade.

But to repair today’s devices, it’s no longer enough to know how to analyze circuits and locate faults. Technicians must become online sleuths.

Rather than searching for clues to a crime though, they’re on the hunt for replacement parts.

The interior of American Electronics. Devices, new and old, line the walls waiting to be diagnosed and repaired.

“Once the unit becomes out of warranty, basically it’s up to the customer and good luck,” Fadel says.

So, people enter his Toronto storefront on Dundas Street West hoping he’ll be able to find a way to fix their beloved device.

Once he’s figured out the problem, the chase begins.

It starts with emails to manufacturers that often go unanswered, and devolves into phone tag with local warehousing companies to see if they have the specific part he needs. If that fails, Fadel will try to track down the original product maker somewhere in Asia to see if it will sell the part to him.

“In doing so, I’ve had success,” he says. But the headache doesn’t end there. These companies only sell in bulk and it’ll take a few months before it arrives at his shop in Toronto.

“The run around that they put us through is absolutely crazy,” Fadel says.

John Fadel at American Electronics. On the wall behind him is his electrical engineering degree and various other certificates.

John’s father, Frank Fadel, opened American Electronics in 1973. In the 50 years the shop has been open, they’ve witnessed a slow decline of the trade. As a child, John rode his bike to factories to pick up parts for his father. But as technology advanced and moved off-shore, the industry began to change.

First to go were service desks, then repair manuals. Eventually, individual parts became scarce.

“Everything slowly became assemblies,” Fadel says. “You had to basically buy half the product because we couldn’t get the one gear or the one lever. It just snowballed.”

Fadel wouldn’t mind that so much — if it were affordable. He regularly gets quotes for assemblies that are more than three-quarters the price of the product.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” he says.

The system that allowed after-market businesses like his to thrive was crumbling. Fadel watched as older technicians threw in the towel and closed shop.

John’s father, Frank Fadel, still works alongside him at the age of 84.

“All the little service places that were around, one by one, they all just disappeared,” Fadel says.

Fadel doesn’t know what will become of the family business if his son doesn’t take over. The business is doing well, but the daily hunt for basic parts has taken a toll.

“Granted, I’m still going strong, but I’m finding it harder and harder day after day.”

How did we get here?

Just 18 per cent of Canadians had their most recently broken electronic or home appliance repaired, according to a 2021 national survey by Équiterre, a non-profit focused on sustainability.

What’s keeping people from fixing their stuff? The cost of repair and the fact that items are increasingly unrepairable.

“If any part of the system doesn’t work, then the repair isn’t going to happen,” says Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, a website that offers everything most companies won’t: repair guides, tools, and parts.

For decades now, product manufacturers have been “systematically strangling the repair ecosystem,” Wiens says. They do this by withholding critical information and parts from consumers and independent repair shops, and threatening penalties for copyright infringement.

Kyle Wiens at iFixit’s workshop in San Luis Obispo, California.

Increasingly, electronics and appliances are made with proprietary parts — controlled exclusively by manufacturers through copyright, trademarks, and patents. Companies may use them to gain a competitive edge, but when they don’t make these parts available to third parties, repair becomes all but impossible.

“It’s a fundamental human right to have access to the knowledge to fix all the things that we depend on for modern life,” Wiens says.

Big tech companies argue that they are protecting consumers’ safety and privacy by restricting who’s able to do repairs and that by not sharing information and parts, they are safeguarding their intellectual property rights.

But there is “scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions,” according to a 2021 U.S. Federal Trade Commission report.

It was out of his own frustration trying to fix a broken charging port on his old iBook that led Wiens to start iFixit in 2003. Unable to find any information online about how to take the thing apart, he took it upon himself to publish his own guide.

The adhesive securing an iPhone battery is place is removed in an iFixit teardown video on YouTube.

“So, I took the laptop apart again, took pictures, put the pictures online,” he says. “They got very popular and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

iFixit has grown into a global community of tinkerers who have published more than 90,000 free repair guides for everything from smartphones to vacuum cleaners. The company’s YouTube channel, where hosts do teardowns of the latest gadgets and rate them on their repairability, has over one million subscribers.

But the iFixit community can’t keep up with the number of new products on the market that continue to be poorly designed and difficult to repair. Wiens has now joined forces with other  DIY repair enthusiasts, consumer rights advocates, and environmentalists to fight for the right to fix all of our stuff.

The right to repair movement

The foundational idea behind the right to repair movement is simple: if you own it, you should be able to fix it, either by yourself or at a repair shop of your choice. The movement’s goal is to make repair more accessible and affordable by forcing manufacturers to provide information, diagnostics, tools and parts to everyone.

This, in turn, would bring back local repair jobs and allow consumers to hold onto their devices longer, benefiting the environment and the economy. In 2021, Canadians spent nearly $13 billion on the repair and maintenance of electronic equipment, which includes commercial and industrial machinery.

Repair technician Rayhan Mohammed Siraj fixes smartphones at his shop, Phone Solutions in Toronto, Ont.

“It’s really one of the fundamental battles of our time,” says Gay Gordon-Byrne, the executive director of The Repair Association, a U.S. advocacy organization pushing for a fair, competitive repair market.

By monopolizing the repair industry, advocates say, manufacturers have stripped consumers of their ability to choose how they maintain their devices. For example, if a device has an issue that requires a proprietary part to be replaced, the owner has no choice but to ship it off to the manufacturer and pay whatever it wants to charge.

Right to repair advocates say repair has become inconvenient and expensive by design, fueling a throwaway culture that encourages people to buy new.

“Companies are profit-driven,” says Alissa Centivany, an assistant professor at Western University focusing on technology policy, law and ethics. “They have developed sophisticated strategies for incentivizing replacement over repair.”

Technician Rayhan Mohammed Siraj examines a motherboard of a cellphone with his magnifying glass. Siraj is the owner of Phone Solutions, an independent cellphone repair shop in Toronto.

Planned obsolescence — or “designed for the dump” — is the idea that many products today are specifically built not to last or, to be difficult to maintain. Take batteries glued into smartphones which makes them challenging to replace or software updates that are incompatible with older devices.

Companies have defended their use of adhesive, saying it is used to seal a device from the elements like dust and water, a design choice intended to make it last longer. But Wiens says gluing down something that needs to be replaced every few years is “ludicrous.”

“It’s like the tires in your car, your battery wears out, just like your tires wear out,” he says.

Other factors lead us to ditch our devices prematurely. Emotional or psychological obsolescence is when people replace a working device because their desire for it has waned, Centivany says. Whether driven by marketing or the never-ending rollout of shiny new things, the impulse to buy the latest gadget threatens to exceed our planet’s ecological limits.

Aerial view of the excavated terrain of the Veliki Krivelj open pit copper mine in the Bor Region, Serbia.

Our unsustainable appetite for electronics

Vast amounts of natural resources are extracted from the earth to make all our electronic devices. Producing just one smartphone requires 600 times its weight in raw materials. Now, multiply that by the approximately five billion phones in use today.

“We are literally digging a mountain out of the earth every day to feed the beast that is our regular electronic consumption,” Wiens says.

The mining and processing of these resources emit huge amounts of greenhouse gasses that cause climate change. Next, they are manufactured in fossil-fuel-burning factories in Asia, then shipped worldwide. Combine that with their short lifespan of just two to three years, and you get an outsized carbon footprint.

Studies estimate that between 80 to 95 per cent of all emissions from electronics occur before we see the product at a retail store.

E-waste at the Electronic Recycling Association’s warehouse in Toronto.

The amount of waste and pollution generated at the manufacturing stage greatly outweighs end-of-life e-waste, despite how gripping those images are, says Josh Lepawsky, a geographer at Memorial University of Newfoundland and co-author of Discard Studies: Wasting, Systems, and Power.

But that’s not to say e-waste is not of global concern. It’s the world’s fastest-growing waste stream, according to the United Nations. In 2019 alone, a record 54 million tonnes of electronic waste was thrown out.

The recycling industry, despite growing rapidly over the last decade, cannot keep up. And while it is an important part of e-waste disposal, it will never solve the electronic waste issue, Lewpawsky says.

“​​No amount of post-consumer recycling is ever going to recoup the amount of pollution and waste that happened before you even purchased your device,” he says.

What can be done?

Cleaning up the electronics manufacturing industry will require systemic change at the supply chain level, Lepawsky says, and that won’t happen without regulatory pressure.

He says we should treat that industry how we treat pharmaceutical or food production. Both industries are highly regulated by Health Canada.

“We’ve built up institutions such that you and I don’t even have to think when we go into the grocery store, or when we pick up this or that medication,” Lepawsky says.

But it helps, too, if we hold onto our things a little longer.

Refurbished iPhones on display at Phone Solutions, a cellphone repair shop in Toronto.

Not being able to repair our things “is a completely artificial problem,” said Gordon-Byrne in her popular 2022 TED Talk on the right to repair, and one that she says can only be fixed by passing legislation to tip the balance back in favour of consumers.

Between the climate crisis and inflation driving up the cost of living, governments are starting to take notice.

In 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order that urged the Federal Trade Commission to make third-party repair easier. Then, at the end of 2022, New York State passed the country’s first right to repair bill covering electronics, though critics say it was significantly watered down at the last minute. Another win came earlier this year when Colorado passed a law to give farmers the right to repair their equipment.

The movement is gaining momentum, but these legislative changes face sustained pushback from tech companies and their lobbyists. In the last decade, there have been right to repair bills proposed in 43 U.S. states. Only the two mentioned above have passed.

But Wiens is optimistic. When the New York law comes into effect in July, it will force companies to make repair information for new products available online — for everyone. “There’s so much momentum now,” he says.

A repair manual for a product has a part labeled “Not Serviceable.” John Fadel says proprietary parts hurt businesses like his.

In Canada, the 2023 federal budget gave a nod to the issue, saying the government plans to implement a right to repair, “with the aim of introducing a targeted framework for home appliances and electronics in 2024.”

While it doesn’t go into specifics, the budget text says devices “should be easy to repair, spare parts should be readily accessible, and companies should not be able to prevent repairs with complex programming or hard-to-obtain bespoke parts.”

Click to play video: 'Federal budget addresses ‘right to repair’ rules'

Federal budget addresses ‘right to repair’ rules

“There needs to be federal leadership on the issue to give the provinces [the guidance] they need to go ahead with amending their Consumer Protection Acts,” says Anthony Rosborough, a Canadian intellectual property lawyer and doctoral researcher at the European University Institute.

A previous attempt in 2019 to pass a right to repair law in Ontario failed, in part, because lawmakers worried it encroached too much into federal jurisdiction, Rosborough says.

The future of ownership in the digital age

As software becomes embedded in more devices, tech companies increasingly use copyright law to restrict third-party repair of their products. Software locks, or digital locks as they’re sometimes called, are when special software is needed in order to do a repair.

An example of this is the widespread practice of “parts pairing.” Let’s say you want to replace your iPhone’s battery with one from an identical device. Unless Apple verifies that part with an in-house software tool that pairs the new battery with your device, the device won’t register the new part and you’ll lose functionality. Apple declined to comment for this story.

It is illegal to circumvent digital locks for any purpose, even if no copyright infringement has taken place.

Technician Rayhan Mohammed Siraj repairs an iPhone in his shop, Phone Solutions in Toronto.

Bill C-244, introduced by Liberal MP Wilson Miao in early 2022, would allow people to get around these digital locks for the sole purpose of “diagnosing or repairing a product.”

Technological protection measures, or TPMs as they’re called in Canada’s Copyright Act, are used by companies to assert copyright control over “the functioning of physical devices,” Rosborough says. “This is not really what copyright is all about.”

TPMs were incorporated into the Copyright Act in 2011 in order to crack down on pirated music and other creative works, but they’ve since been used by companies to prevent repair and to stop people from devising new applications for their products.

“They’ve been hijacking this legal tool to restrict a bunch of activities copyright has no business restricting,” Rosborough says.

Service sign at American Electronics, a family-owned repair shop in Toronto.

The bill is being seen as a first step in the government’s right to repair agenda. But Rosborough worries a change made to it during the committee stage could jeopardize its effectiveness. An exception was made for any device that contains a sound recording “as part of the product.”

“One can imagine manufacturers of dishwashers, dryers, kettles, toilets, and other devices that play jingles to assert that their devices include musical works as part of the product,” Rosborough wrote via email. “It is foreseeable that it may provide a loophole for manufacturers to exploit.”

In the wake of legislation and increased public debate around the right to repair, some of the biggest tech companies in the world have begun to make some concessions. Apple has launched a DIY repair program, soon to come to Canada. Google and Samsung now sell parts for their phones. Nokia and Microsoft are attempting to make more repairable products.

John Fadel works away at his repair shop, American Electronics.

These are wins, in a way, for the movement. But Wiens doesn’t want that to distract from the larger goal: to claw back complete ownership of all of our physical devices in the 21st century.

“Right now, you have a few companies that have made token efforts,” he says. “We need to keep fighting.”


With files from Sean Meral.

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