Jesse Adams Stein gives us some background on the Right to Repair movement – in the lead up to the panel discussion ‘Can we talk about a ‘Right to Repair in Australia?’ on 2 October (full details below).
The ‘right to repair’ has been a topical issue in international media and to some extent locally. But why does repair matter? Is it just because we like to tinker with our things?
E-Waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. Australians are the fourth highest generators of e-waste per capita globally, generating an average of 23.6 kg per inhabitant, per annum. In 2016 the world generated over 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste, only 20% of which made it into appropriate e-waste channels. E-waste is a particularly virulent problem, both because of the significant environmental costs of electronics manufacture, and because of the toxic materials that can quickly end up in the waste stream after the object is swiftly discarded. We also now know that repair is a climate issue. A recent report from the European Environmental Bureau calculated that extending the lifetime of all smartphones in the EU by 3 years would save around 4.3 metric tonnes of potential carbon emissions.
What is the Right to Repair?
While the Right to Repair can now be understood as a general liberal concept – the idea that people should be able to fix the objects they own – it is also a specific political and legislative movement that emerged from the United States. That movement is specifically concerned with the reparability of particular technologies, most particularly smartphones, laptops, tablets, cars and agricultural equipment.
In the contemporary context, an increasing number of technologies and objects are run by computers using proprietary software. This includes a vast range of technologies, including most obviously IT devices, but also coffee machines, high-end toasters, tractors, fitness trackers, and motorised blinds (and so on). This software tends to be covered by copyright protections (TPMs – Technological Protection Measures), which protects the original object manufacturer (OEM) from having their device – and its internal functions – copied by another manufacturer. Having software embedded into our everyday appliances makes them harder to repair – it is no longer as simple as using a screw driver, taking off a back panel and having a look around.
The existence of TPMs also means that if an owner of an appliance, vehicle or smart device attempts to open or modify the object, for the purposes of repair or maintenance, they will be in breach of copyright and thus void their warranty (or worse). With this in mind, manufacturers now regularly glue-seal devices shut, designing the product in such a way that prevents independent repair attempts. In this way, a great deal of hardware and software design has become actively anti-repair.
Essentially, most manufacturers would rather you replaced your broken device than repaired it; it means more turnover for them. If repair is to happen, some manufacturers – such as Apple and the agricultural equipment company John Deere – want to maintain a monopoly over that repair, and they have gone to great lengths to discourage independent professional repair and DIY repair. In the case of Apple, iPhone owners have at times been literally ‘punished’ for using independent repair services. When an independent repair is detected, software programs punitively kick in, voiding various aspects of the phone’s usability.
US Movement for Legislative Reform
In 2012 the notion of the ‘right to repair’ emerged in Massachusetts in association with the auto-industry, which led to a US-wide agreement, whereby auto manufacturers have agreed to share information and manuals with independent repairers. But the broader repair rights issue was by no means resolved, as this agreement only applied to the auto-industry. Repair-unfriendly design and software is prevalent in a wide variety of electronic objects and machinery, making the issue complex to regulate.
Some of the most vocal early proponents of a Right to Repair emerged from an American agricultural context, where farmers sought the right to repair their agricultural equipment legally, without penalisation. Large vehicles and machinery such as harvesters and tractors are a significant investment by farmers, with the expectation that they will last a long time. There’s a longstanding practice of using used components (replacement parts) on agricultural equipment – repairing the machinery to keep it going for a generation or more. The existence of TPMs disrupts this long-standing tradition of DIY maintenance, resulting in machinery that is in otherwise good condition being rendered unusable (and effectively turning into waste), if the owner were to strictly follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
From 2016 John Deere have fought to retain their control over their TPMs in the face of a grassroots movement of farmers who wanted access to their tractors’ copyrighted software in order to facilitate repair and maintenance. This led to the term ‘tractor hacking’, referring to a practice whereby farmers were downloading Eastern European hacking software, in order to break into their tractor software and undertake diagnostics and ultimately repairs.
To date, 20 US states now have proposed ‘Right to Repair’ or ‘Fair Repair’ legislation, and have garnered a great deal of political support. The movement also faces strong opposition from manufacturing lobbyists, who emphasise safety and security issues associated with sharing software information. Companies such as Apple have made small concessions to independent repairers, but some argue that this is not far enough, and it is merely a co-opting of repair rhetoric.
The Right to Repair movement is a good example of the diversity of political and social contexts with interests in repair and maintenance. Repairers and repair advocates span across a broad political spectrum, and include manufacturing workers, farmers, artists, bicycle maintainers, computer programmers, urban professionals, rail heritage enthusiasts, museum workers, and teachers (among others).
Criticisms of the Right to Repair movement include that it is essentially a libertarian movement at heart, focused on an individual’s right to own private property. Some argue that a meaningful movement towards reducing waste needs to be more collective in spirit, resulting in social democratic regulation and incentives for repair, rather than focusing on an individual person’s right to consume in the way they choose.
Repair and Design
Proposed Right to Repair legislation in the US does not generally impact directly on the design of objects, but it demands that repairers have access to enough information in order to conduct repair and maintenance without voiding warranties. This means that owners of large agricultural equipment can have their machinery fixed on site, or close by, rather than travelling long (and expensive) distances to the original manufacturer for repair.
Although proprietary software is a major consideration in this debate, the ‘right to repair’ issue is not solely about copyright. It also pertains to the hardware, or the physical casing, of the technological object in question. Many ‘smart’ devices are designed in such a way that their interior workings are hermetically sealed, unable to be opened without force or damage. This is a form of ‘defensive’ design, which makes the design closed and sealed, deliberately preventing tampering or access by an authorised repairer. Such objects often have no screws or opening panels; they do not enable replaceable parts or batteries. This is the ultimate form of planned obsolescence: where a manufacturer would rather their object break and unrepairable (in less than 2 years), rather than allow the object’s owner – or a third party – to fix the item.
Repair Action in the EU
In the EU, the notion of the ‘right to repair’ is also used, with a slightly different set of values and articulated goals. The European Commission’s Eco Design Directive has focused not only on software access, but also on eco-design measures such as spare parts availability, ease of disassembly, product durability and longevity, recycling, and energy efficiency measures.
What’s the status in Australia?
Environmental advocates have been calling for legislative reform to the Product Stewardship Act and a crowd-funding campaign has been launched (by The Bower) for the Right to Repair.
In recent developments, the ACT Minister for Consumer Affairs Shane Rattenbury has taken the issue to Australian and NZ Ministers for Consumer Affairs at the Consumer Affairs Forum. Following this, Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar has written to the Treasurer, requesting that the ‘right to repair’ be added to the Productivity Commission’s forward agenda.
How a ‘right to repair’ might interact with our existing IP and consumer protection laws remains to be seen. Further, it is likely it won’t be called a ‘Right to Repair’. While there are some state exceptions, Australia as a nation does not have a Bill of Rights, so discussing ‘rights’ in this context is impractical.
Please join us for a panel discussion about repair policy and action in an Australia context. Panellists include Associate Professor Leanne Wiseman, Annette Mayne, Dr Guy Keulemans and John Gertsakis. Chair: Dr Jesse Adams Stein
When: Wednesday 2nd Oct 2019, 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm
Where: Design Innovation Research Centre
University of Technology Sydney, 622-632 Harris Street, Ultimo NSW 2007
Bookings: Free event, please book using this link
This event is part of the Repair.Design research project, UTS School of Design.
This panel was developed in collaboration with Guido Verbist, The Bower Reuse & Repair Centre
Annette Mayne has over 20 years’ experience in communications and community education, with a focus on waste avoidance. She has spent the last 15 years working with Councils, charities and social enterprises on the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle – but has become increasingly frustrated with the lack of repair options for consumers. Annette has turned her attention to hand-held technology, and recently launched The Reconnect Project, a social enterprise giving old phones and devices a new life through repair and reuse.
Leanne Wiseman is Associate Director of the Australian Centre for Intellectual Property in Agriculture, and an Associate Professor in Law at Griffith University, Brisbane Australia. Leanne is an interdisciplinary scholar whose research lies at the intersections of law, science and digital technologies. Her research has most recently focused on the legal issues arising from the adoption of digital technologies in agriculture, one of which is the inability of farmers to modify or repair their tractors due to the technological locks placed over their tractor’s software.
John Gertsakis is a sustainability practitioner with experience as an advocate, industry adviser and research academic. He is director and co-founder of the Ewaste Watch Institute, and he co-authored Australia’s first report on e-waste in 1995. He served as Executive Director of Product Stewardship Australia from 2006 to 2011. John is currently Director of Communications with Equilibrium consultants, and Adjunct Professor with the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS. John has written and presented widely on sustainable product design, extended producer responsibility and the need for increased regulation to drive industry reform. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Design Institute of Australia.
Dr Guy Keulemans is a designer, artist and researcher at UNSW Art & Design. Guy creates critical objects and processes informed by history, philosophy, sustainability theory and experimental methods. His areas of interest include transformative repair and reuse, generative processes, and the environmental impacts of production and consumption.
Want to read more?
Leanne Wiseman, ‘Do Australian Farmers Need a Right to Repair?’
Nathan Proctor, ‘Corporations Are Co-Opting Right-to-Repair’,
Lee Vinsel, ‘Fighting for the right to repair our stuff’
Valerie Vande Panne, ‘The Case to Repair, and Not to Replace’
Annabelle Nilsson, ‘Reforming the Product Stewardship Act to enable a circular economy‘