Following two favorable votes concerning personal electronics, the European Parliament plans to bolster repairability and environmentalism across the EU. France and Austria have since stepped forward as early adopters.
Electrical engineers and hobbyists alike have a unique place in this conversation because they are intimately familiar with the hardware repairability of electronics, but are, in many cases, legally unable to repair their own devices.
How are attitudes on the right to repair movement shifting on the whole? And how might these attitudes change global legislation?
Questions That Have Fueled the Right to Repair
Many device owners, including EEs, are at the mercy of manufacturers. Coordinating in-store repairs is difficult enough; it’s now especially challenging due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What about mailing directly to the manufacturer? While viable, this leaves users without their devices for multiple days or weeks.
The right to repair movement argues that legislation will create more jobs for hardware professionals and technicians. Image used courtesy of the Repair.org
Additionally, consumers have long lamented the expense of first-party repairs. What if self-servicing (or at least third-party servicing), which engineers are more than capable of executing themselves, were readily available? These issues have fueled the right to repair movement.
Parliament Paves the Way for the European Commission
Consumer sentiments toward environmental consciousness have driven EU legislative action—even in the electronics space—for some time. Accordingly, the European Commission’s 2019 Consumer Conditions Scoreboard asserts that over 50% of purchasers are influenced by “green claims.”
Surveys and research are vital to the Union. They form the basis for the EU’s “evidence-based consumer policy” across its single-market system. Some issues are fleeting while others are persistent. The right to repair and sustainability firmly fall into that latter category.
Assessing the Vote
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have come together for two key votes—one deciding the fate of repairability transparency, and the other on quelling planned obsolescence. Both measured have passed, with repairability scoring receiving heavy Parliamentary support. What results can Europeans thus expect?
- Personal electronics sold online and in stores must clearly be labeled with a repairability score, out of 10.
- Device makers—notably those of laptops and smartphones—must extend the lifespans of their products.
Consumer awareness is crucial. Parliament’s goal is to help EU buyers answer fundamental questions prior to purchasing:
- How accessible will repairs and documentation be if my device breaks prematurely?
- For how long may I expect adequate performance from my device from both hardware and software standpoints?
France and Austria Act
The Commission is actively creating laws in response to these votes. While obsolescence has been contentious (slimly passing 344 to 342), the decision potentially constitutes a major win for European consumers.
The European Parliament won a slim margin of two votes on obsolescence. Image used courtesy of Right to Repair
While the Commission mulls over the next steps, France is taking early action. The government will begin enforcing labeling guidelines in January of 2021. Accordingly, product packaging will prominently display an ease-of-repairability score out of 10. These stickers will apply to smartphones, laptops, and related electronics.
Austria has adopted a fiscal approach—which has precedent for other products. As recently as late September, the Austrian government slashed the value-added tax (VAT) on small repairs of select items in half. Similar plans are expected for personal electronic devices—while potentially subsidizing or reimbursing a portion of the repair costs. These measures aim to make repairs cheaper and thus preferable to replacement.
The Status of Right to Repair in America
Though the picture hasn’t traditionally been rosy, there’s mounting hope for the American repairability movement. Organizations like the United States Public Research Group and The Repair Association continue to champion the right to repair. Consumers are also hopping aboard.
Map of states that have introduced a right-to-repair bill. Image used courtesy of the Repair.org
The outlook for the US remains cautiously optimistic. At least 33 states have introduced a right-to-repair bill—a number which is expected to rise.
A (Slightly) Loosening Grip on Self-Repairs
Apple—a heavy proponent of official repairs—relaxed restrictions on parts availability. Independent service providers must no longer use substandard parts or tools. Apple is offering such shops the same components they’d offer to authorized servicers. This is impactful, considering over 100 million iPhone users reside in the US.
Legislation supporting self-repairs on a number of products is coming into play. Congress and advocates are urging companies to “make their parts, tools, and information available to consumers and repair shops.” Preventing discarded devices from entering landfills—a huge contributor to the e-waste crisis—is paramount.
Planned obsolescence is one of the major contributors to the e-waste crisis. Image used courtesy of Michael Conroy and The Atlantic
A Matter of Hardware Property Rights?
Furthermore, professionals don’t have a monopoly on passion or knowledge. Right-to-repair laws can benefit the hobbyist—who may not only perform repairs for profit but because it’s what they love to do. Proponents want to create opportunities for tinkerers nationwide.
Lawmakers have begun questioning whether or not companies are monopolizing control over their devices. While it’s assumed that paying customers own their hardware outright—monthly contracts notwithstanding—companies assert control over their software. Owners fear that software might serve as a vehicle for hardware lockdowns. Imposed restrictions could potentially undermine replacement-part compatibility.