A tractor. A refrigerator. A smartphone. A ventilator. They may not seem to have much in common, but in fact they all share increasingly high tech features. And when they break, they need fixing.
Yet, thanks to strict rules imposed by manufacturers, our ability to do so remains extremely limited. Companies frequently withhold the information and tools needed to repair devices from consumers, with some warranties outright banning third parties from tinkering with products.
But that could all soon change. Joe Biden earlier this month signed an executive order that called on federal agencies to prioritize consumers’ so-called “right to repair” their own devices, whether that means choosing an independent mechanic or doing it themselves. A week later, the Federal Trade Commission took heed, voting unanimously to prioritize the issue. Meanwhile, 25 states across the US are also considering some form of right to repair laws.
It remains to be seen how the FTC will act, but with potentially major changes on the horizon, we heard from those most likely to be affected on their experiences and hopes, from farming and consumer technology to wheelchairs and other medical devices.
Walter Schweitzer is a 59-year-old farmer in Montana who has been working in agriculture his whole life and advocating for the right to repair for more than a decade. For him, Biden prioritizing right to repair was a huge moment.
“It’s going to sound a little funny, but listening to the announcement I had tears come to my eyes,” he said. “Because I felt like someone heard me, someone is listening, and they’re going to try to do something about it. I’ve been waiting for that for years.”
The majority of tractors today are internet-connected, and resolving errors requires special diagnostic tools that only manufacturers, such as John Deere, and authorized dealers have access to or are allowed to use. They often charge hundreds of dollars in call-out fees for repairs and can take weeks to complete.
Schweitzer said while he has long been championing the right to repair, the issue became personal for him last year when a tractor broke down in the middle of harvesting his hay. A representative from the tractor company told Schweitzer they couldn’t send a mechanic to fix the device for more than a week.
With rain on the horizon threatening to ruin his crop and the window to harvest beginning to close, Scheweitzer entered a race against time. He ultimately made the emergency decision to move forward with a 40-year-old tractor – one that was not connected to the internet.
His original machine would not end up being fixed for more than a month, a wait that would have lost him thousands of dollars. In larger operations, he said, farmers could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars because of a technology outage they are not allowed to fix themselves.
“Farmers are an independent bunch,” he said. “If we have a problem we tend to like to try to fix it ourselves. And to tie your hands behind your back, to not allow you to fix your tractor when you got a hailstorm coming. That’s stressful.”
Scheweitzer said these issues exacerbate the challenges farmers face, from soaring expenses to falling food prices and increasingly volatile weather. The rate of suicide in the industry is already higher than average – one 2015 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found male farmers in 17 states took their lives at a rate of 1.5 times higher than the general population.
“The right to repair, it might save us money; the right to repair is probably going to mean a more resilient food supply – but you know what the right to repair is really going to do for farmers?” he said. “It’s going to save some lives.”
Amber Schmidt is a manager at Free Geek, a Portland-based nonprofit that repairs old electronic devices and redistributes them to community members in need. She said the current right-to-repair restrictions by manufacturers have made made it extremely difficult to salvage old devices.
Sometimes a specific part is needed but cannot be purchased separately from a manufacturer. Independent repair workers have to buy them from less-reputable sources, putting machines and even user safety at risk.
“It is really difficult for us to do the work we need to do when we don’t have access to the tools, parts, or diagnostics we need to safely and effectively repair things,” she said.
The inability to repair old devices also creates massive amounts of electronic and electrical waste, she added, putting untold strain on the environment. More than 50 million tons of of e-waste is generated per year, less than 20% of which is recycled.
With school and work increasingly online, especially during the pandemic, access to affordable tech is becoming a crucial equity issue, Schmidt said. “Everything is online now,” she said.
But the digital divide persists: nearly a quarter of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year say they don’t own a smartphone, and 41% do not own a desktop or laptop computer. In contrast, nearly all adults in households earning $100,000 or more a year have such devices.
Greater flexibility to repair old electronics would mean more affordable devices for the people who need them, Schmidt said.
“I am hopeful that the new executive order will help create a system where people can get their devices repaired where they choose to,” Schmidt said. “This will help get computers back into the hands of people who don’t have access to them otherwise.”
Louis Rossmann is an independent repair technician who owns a shop in New York City that specializes in the repair of MacBooks – particularly logic board issues, where the main piece of hardware in a computer is compromised.
In those cases, he said Apple will often charge customers $1,500 to fix a problem he can fix for as little as $200. Doing so requires finding manuals and parts only provided to certain vendors approved by Apple. Rossmann often scours forums online and obtains parts from unapproved manufacturers in China to get the job done.
“Often I have all the equipment and knowledge I need to do the repair, but I have to wait for the chips or other parts to come through the black market,” he said. “It’s a legal gray area.”
Apple often argues its devices must go through approved repair firms for security reasons – but that assertion has been called into question in recent years following privacy scandals, including one in which technicians stole illicit photos from a woman’s phone.
The work Rossmann does is technically not allowed by Apple’s user agreements. But he said he feels an obligation to help his customers, who often come to him having lost all their computer files due to water damage or other issues. Apple has in the past sued independent repair shops for using certain unapproved parts in iPhone repairs.
Rossman has amassed a following of 1.4 million people on YouTube, where he shares videos explaining how to repair a variety of devices whose manufacturers withhold such information from consumers. He said tech firms have sent him cease and desist letters regarding his channel in the past, but he doesn’t plan on stopping. Right to repair could save him money and hours of work finding the correct parts to repair devices, which are not readily offered by manufacturers.
“I don’t feel bad at all – this is something that used to be natural,” he said. “For over 100 years, if something breaks on your car or on your air conditioner or washing machine, repair people are able to get access to what is needed to fix it. It is only in recent years and on computers that doing repairs has become like buying cocaine or something.”
Ilir Kullolli is the director of clinical technology and biomedical engineering at Stanford Children’s Health. He says the right to repair has massive implications for medical technology, and has been advocating on the issue since 2011.
Kullolli said the ability for in-house workers to repair their own medical devices such as ventilators, defibrillators, and anesthesia machines saves hospitals and patients time and money. But often manufacturers withhold the training, device manuals, and software needed to complete the repairs.
“We are impacted in so many ways, the worst of which being patient care is compromised and delayed,” he said. “Waiting for a manufacturer to show up means you often have to delay a case from going to the operating room, or in some cases even cancel it.”
He said in some cases a repair can take more than five days, especially in rural areas where local technicians are not as accessible. This issue came into focus during the coronavirus pandemic, when delays to repairs on ventilators and other critical devices became a matter of life and death.
In addition to such grave instances, he said the right to repair devices can save struggling hospitals hundreds of thousands of dollars. Data shows allowing local technicians to repair their own devices is at least one-third cheaper than going to the manufacturer, he said.
Kullolli is tentatively hopeful that the executive order – which did not put any legislation into action but prioritized the issue at a federal level – will bring change.
“I’m just glad that the executive order got signed, and I’m hoping it will put us on the right path to get everyone access to the ability to repair devices, which we all deserve,” he said.