Originally published at: Pluralistic: 30 May 2022 – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow
- Podcasting "Apple's Cement Overshoes": Thinking different about right to repair.
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Podcasting "Apple's Cement Overshoes" (permalink)
This week on my podcast, I read my recent Medium column, "Apple's Cement Overshoes," about the incredible, cynical fuckery that Apple engages in to sabotage right to repair and ensure that its devices end up in overseas e-waste landfills rather than being fixed and kept in service.
For all the debate around Right to Repair, it's amazing how simple the actual issue is. On the anti- side, you have companies who say that their users are a bunch of idiotic babies who can't be trusted to make their own choices about who fixes their stuff, and which parts they use. The companies say that they should be given the authority to decide who can effect repairs, and under which circumstances – and that they will only use this authority to keep their users safe.
On the pro-repair side, you have people who say that companies aren't always the best choice for fixing the products they originate, and that the more companies have to block repair competition, the worse their own repair services get. When companies have to compete against an independent repair sector, they have to offer attractive prices and they have to keep up a supply of parts so older products can be kept in service.
When users decide who gets to fix their stuff, they can make trade-offs that they alone can appreciate – like the choice to keep using an older device rather than sending it to a landfill, or the choice to fix their own gadget because they have an urgent need (say, a farmer who wants to fix their own tractor so they can bring in the crops before a storm).
Apple leads the anti-repair axis, which is weird, considering the company's origins. The Apple ][+ gave rise to a generation of hardware hackers because it shipped with Steve Wozniak's gorgeous hardware schematics, inviting tinkerers to extend, modify and fix their machines.
But there is such a powerful temptation to break repair. A desktop computer only needs replacement when it goes obsolete – unlike a laptop or a phone or a smart-watch, your iMac is unlikely to suffer a cracked screen, get run over by a bus, get dropped in a toilet, or fall down a sewer-grate. The migration of computers from our desks to our backpacks, pockets and wrists is potentially wildly profitable. Not only do the damages from portability let manufacturers charge a fortune for repairs, but it lets them entice or coerce their customers into upgrading, rather than fixing, their gadgets.
Apple isn't particularly subtle about why it fights independent repair. CEO Tim Cook started 2019 with his annual shareholder letter, in which he warned his investors that Apple's profits were threatened by customers who stubbornly chose to get their old gadgets fixed rather than trading them into Apple for replacements:
He wasn't taking that risk lying down. In 2018, Apple led an anti-repair axis of giant companies – including Wahl, John Deere, major appliance makers, and others – in defeating 18 state right to repair bills that would have forced companies to supply diagnostic information, manuals, and tools to independent service depots.
These right to repair bills didn't come out of nowhere: they represented the independent repair sector's frustration with giant corporations' ongoing legal and technical assaults on the fix-it shops that keep our gadgets working for us, and out of landfills.
Long before Apple killed those right to repair bills, it was inventing and perfecting the anti-repair playbook that other industries followed. Apple used three tactics to fight repair:
- Hiding documentation. Not only does Apple fail to publish its repair manuals, it actually treats them as trade-secrets, forcing internal and external technicians to sign nondisclosure agreements as a condition of accessing them.
Blocking parts. Apple goes to enormous lengths to keep replacement parts out of independent repairers' hands. When you bring your busted Apple product to an Apple Store, they'll often offer you a trade-in deal. If you take it, Apple gets to send your gadget to its "recyclers" who drop it in a giant shredder, a nonstandard practice that ensures that no one harvests working parts out of those broken devices:
Apple also engraves minuscule Apple logos on tiny, internal parts, and uses these as to make bizarre trademark claims with US Customs, resulting in refurbished, original Apple parts being seized at the border and destroyed as "counterfeits":
- VIN-locking. This is when a manufacturer uses embedded processors to rig their products to reject new parts unless an authorized technician enters an unlock code into the device. Though this originated in the automotive sector, it's metastasized to phones, tractors, medical implants and hospital equipment:
All of this is good for Apple's shareholders, but it's terrible for its customers, and the world that we all share with them. Apple devices – like all electronics – are stuffed with toxic waste, conflict minerals and heavy metals, and require torrents of scarce fresh water and carbon-intensive energy to make. The longer these devices stay in use, the better it is for the planet. When they're shredded, they're exported to overseas e-waste dumps that are environmental and human-rights disasters:
On a more basic level, though, blocking repair is indefensible in a market economy. When you buy a gadget, it's yours. You are allowed to do whatever you want with it, even stupid things. If there are ways of using your product that are so dangerous to others that they should be banned, we do that with democratically accountable laws, not unilateral commands from corporations with unresolvable conflicts of interest.
What's more, repair is in the national interest. Repair makes supply-chains resilient, keeping vital equipment in service when manufacturers are unreachable and unavailable or simply disappear. Repair is also an engine for economic development: landfilling a ton of e-waste creates one job; recycling that ton creates 15 jobs.
Repairing a ton of e-waste creates 200 high-paid, local jobs. 200! Repair accounts for 4% of US GDP.
When monopolists attack right to repair efforts, they often point out that repair advocates make money from fixing your stuff, as though this was some kind of damning conflict of interest. It's bizarre. Yeah, your neighbor who runs your corner fix-it shop pays their mortgage by fixing your phone for you. Was there anyone who didn't understand this?
What's more, Apple – or Wahl, or GM, or John Deere – aren't exactly charitable nonprofits whose repair programs are operated as a public service. Apple was – and likely will be – a $3 trillion company. But all the money in the world wasn't enough to make right to repair go away. People stubbornly keep insisting on being able to choose their own repair technicians, and rejecting a future where we all drown in e-waste. It's shocking, honestly – won't anyone think of the poor shareholders?
Apple kept racking up wins at the state level, killing right to repair initiatives, but the company could read the writing on the wall: repair was coming. It's a matter of when, not if. So Apple switched to Plan B: they invented repairwashing, fake repair programs that kept its repair racket intact, but made it seem like it was cooperating with the repair sector.
In 2019, Apple launched its certified independent repair program, which allowed independent repair shops to fix some iPhone screens, with Apple's blessing. The program was a joke. Despite only allowing screen repairs, Apple refused to supply certified shops with parts to do these repairs. Instead, the shops must gather their customers' sensitive personal information and send it to Apple, wait for Apple to verify it, and send the needed part.
Participants had to promise not to do any repairs other than the few that Apple permitted, which meant that shops that joined the program had to reduce the services they offered to their customers. They also had to promise not to buy third-party or refurb parts, and submit to random audits.
Unsurprisingly, they got few takers for this offer, but that wasn't the point. The point was to have a program that they could cite as part of their future efforts to kill right to repair laws: "See, the market is working! No need for government intervention!"
This was just a stalling tactic. It couldn't last forever. Eventually, enough lawmakers would get briefed on how restrictive the program was, and so Apple needed Plan C: Repairwashing, the home edition.
Last spring, the FTC reported on its two year Nixing the Fix investigation into repair, publishing a ringing endorsement for independent repair as good for Americans, for resilience, for the economy, and for the environment:
A few months later, the Biden admin dropped a resounding executive order on right to repair:
And a few months after that, Apple announced a new "home repair program" that would send real Apple "parts, tools and manuals" to iPhone owners who wanted to replace their screens or batteries. The announcement prompted a lot of speculation about how Apple would neuter this offer:
Even the wildest guesses fell short of Apple's jaw-dropping, industry-leading fuckery. This month, The Verge's Sean Hollister ordered an Apple home repair kit, and found himself in possession of 79 pounds of Apple gear:
Apple shipped Hollister two Pelican cases' worth of phone-fixing tools, starting with an industrial glue-melting machine so he could separate his phone's case (Apple is Exhibit A in the case for "screws, not glue" to aid in repairs). The machine didn't work on the first or second try, and only managed the trick when Hollister located and engaged a hidden turbo-suction mode. Even then, it left behind a gross, gluey residue that was supposed to come away with tweezers (not included in the 79lb kit, and also, this didn't work).
The process of replacing the iPhone battery is a master-class in planned obsolescence. Any device that survives for more than a couple years needs to have its battery replaced. Apple likes to pretend this isn't true – indeed, the company secretly slowed down older phones' processors so they wouldn't chew through their failing batteries. The Batterygate scandal cost Apple $113m:
Despite this, Hollister discovered that replacing his battery required removing three different kinds of security screws as well as innumerable tiny, fiddly clips that held the ribbon-cables in. The screwdrivers in the 79 lb repair kit don't have the otherwise standard magnetic tips, leaving Hollister to chase minuscule metal bits around his workbench.
Apple claims the 79 lb kit is full of "professional" tools, and it places a $1,200 hold on your credit card to cover the cost of replacement, should you lose or break them. For professional tools, these are awfully amateur-hour: it's not just the nonfunctional glue-melter or the unmagnetized screwdrivers. For example, the press that holds the battery down kept slipping, knocking the battery out of alignment.
But eventually, Hollister finished the repair – and his phone still didn't work. It turns out the battery Apple ships is VIN-locked, and the phone won't recognize it until you phone an authorized third-party repair technician, cable your phone to a laptop, connect to the internet, and allow the technician to remotely access your phone (and all its data!) and then bless the repair by keying in an unlock code.
This is clearly more repairwashing. As Hollister points out, Apple eats the cost of shipping the repair kits, about $200 each way. That's a pretty good indicator that Apple doesn't think anyone's going to go through an 80-page repair at home – especially not one that actually costs more than bringing your phone to Apple for the same repair.
It's worth contrasting this repair with iFixit's equivalent, third-party repair experience. For $20-50, iFixit will ship you a battery and all the tools you need to do the repair, and they repair excellent manuals and videos showing you how to do the fix:
Rather than using an "industrial grade heat-station" to melt your phone's glue, iFixit shows you how to use a heat-gun or even a hair-dryer. If you want to get fancy, you can invest $20 on an iOpener – a gel-filled sock that you microwave and then wrap around your phone:
Apple's home repair program is an unfunny joke. The company's decision to design its devices so they are actively hostile to repair is an environmental crime, something that's getting harder to deny as truly innovative companies pop up with elegant, lightweight, rugged, high-performance gadgets that can be fully serviced by their owners:
What's more, these devices can be upgraded piecemeal – their owners can easily install a faster processor or a better camera when they become available, without junking the whole device:
Right to repair is a no-brainer, which means that even mighty Apple, with all its tax-evading trillions, can't keep it at bay alone. Apple leads an anti-repair coalition of multinationals that strangle right to repair wherever they can.
Apple was at the forefront in killing New Hampshire's R2R law. The state's motto might be "live free or die," but Rep. John Potucek – who helped kill the law – adopted a much bootlickier motto: "cellphones are throwaways…just get a new one."
In Ohio, Apple taught appliance manufacturers how to convince lawmakers not to vote for right to repair. Ever notice how your parents' washing machines and dishwashers lasted for decades, while yours are beyond repair the day after the warranty expires?
In Ontario, Doug Ford's "Open for business" provincial parliament killed right to repair, shafting small Ontario repair businesses to protect the ability of a California company to gouge Ontarians on repairs (please, Ontarians, do not re-elect this bumblefuck):
The anti-repair lobby is still killing right to repair legislation. Just this week, John Deere and its Big Ag coalition got repair stripped out of a North Carolina bill, arguing that repair was bad for the environment because evil farmers might turn off their emissions controls:
In California, a repair bill just died in the state senate, despite support from 75% of voters. The bill died thanks to FUD straight out of Apple's playbook, which warned about data-theft, patent infringement, and the whole cliched parade of anti-repair horribles:
There was a time when Apple championed repair. Apple customers have fond memories of repair depots like NYC's legendary Tekserve, immortalized in Tamara Shopsin's incredible novel LaserWriter II:
Today, the company has committed its prodigious engineering, legal and lobbying muscle to preventing repair, designing gadgets of exquisite repair-hostility:
We can't afford this. It's not just the cost of replacing your gadgets rather than fixing them. It's the environmental cost, the human rights cost, the brittleness of our supply-chains, the collapse of local repair jobs.
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