For years, if you wanted to fix your own iPhone, Apple would refuse to sell you the spare parts or provide any service manuals. If you actually successfully repaired something, you might find a software lock preventing you from regaining the full functionality.
But starting in January, Apple will make spare parts, repair instructions, and repair software tools available to customers. The new Self Service Repair program is a stunning reversal of the company’s longstanding policy of closely controlling repair.
It is a big win for the plucky gang of advocates, fixers, DIYers and tinkerers who campaign for the Right to Repair so people can fix their own stuff. (I’m proud to say that my organization, PIRG, was a leader in the fight.) It’s also a huge course correction from one of the world’s biggest companies and includes its most valuable product, the iPhone.
It’s not only a win for consumers but also a win for the planet. PIRG found that if Americans used their phones for one year longer on average, it would have the same climate benefits as taking 636,000 cars off the road.
I see this as a win for democracy as well: proof that the public can mobilize, take on issues that need to be fixed, and make positive changes to how society is run, despite powerful opposition. That should give us hope we can fix other problems technology causes us, too.
The goal of Right to Repair campaigns is to make sure that users and independent repair providers can access the parts, service tools and repair software needed to fix our modern gadgets and other equipment. Over the last 20 years, manufacturers have increasing locked out repair access by refusing to sell necessary materials like parts, or locking repairs with proprietary software tools. Independent repair technicians and consumers are fighting back.
In 2012, Massachusetts passed rules to make sure independent car mechanics had access to what they needed to fix cars, and after that breakthrough, advocates have been working to extend those rights to consumer electronics and other types of equipment. The Right to Repair isn’t the only campaign to make changes to how tech companies operate. The growing resistance to how the largest tech companies behave has been dubbed the “techlash.” These companies’ actions have raised a host of concerns about privacy, market concentration, labor rights, and their ability to manipulate public opinion (all while seemingly avoiding taxes that other, often much less profitable, companies pay).
In May, Axios declared that the “techlash is a bust,” citing that Big Tech profits were surging despite additional scrutiny. When a $5 billion fine for a company causes the stock prices to go up—as was the case when the U.S. Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook for widespread violations of its customers’ privacy—it can make you wonder if these companies are immune to our criticisms. As the Verge’s Nilay Patel wrote at the time, “the biggest FTC fine in United States history increased Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth. What lesson would you learn from that?”
Big Tech continues to inspire to a lot of saber-rattling in both houses of Congress about getting tough. Somehow, unlikely bedfellows as Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz have all aired similar criticisms. Yet, to date, Congress has done little to rein in Big Tech. Maybe that’s why a Pew poll from this summer found that 68 percent of Americans feel that the tech companies have “too much power and influence.”
According to John Ray, senior political analyst with YouGov, this attitude fuels the “extraordinarily high” polling support for Right to Repair: In 2019, 71 percent supported and only 7 percent opposed. Ray told me in a phone interview after his 2019 poll that more and more Americans across the political spectrum have come to the conclusion “corporations have too much power in the modern economy.”
A similar portion of Americans support Right to Repair as believe big companies have too much power. What does it take to turn polling support into positive action?
Apple isn’t the only company that has made changes as a result of Right to Repair campaigns. Microsoft agreed to release more parts and service information publicly and has redesigned its products to be easier to fix. Google has made phone repair software for Pixel 6 publicly available.
These companies opposed Right to Repair efforts for years, so clearly these actions are not out of the goodness of their hearts. In every state where we press for repair-friendly reforms, we run into a cavalcade of opposition lobbyists. I calculated that $10.7 trillion worth of companies, including each of the “Big 5,” have taken part in the fight against Right to Repair reforms.
When you take on opposition like that, you need a couple of special tools in hand.
First, you need a campaign that regular people can relate to—where they understand both the problem and the solution and how it can impact their life. If regular people can’t understand the problem, or what your solution is, you can’t expect them to respond in droves.
Then you need to use facts to make a clear case as to what is happening—and bring the receipts. Some of our key supporting documentation includes iFixit’s detailed product teardowns showing how repair is made overly difficult, PIRG’s many reports on the topic outlining how much money consumers could save or the scope of the environmental benefits, and most recently, the FTC’s landmark “Nixing the Fix” analysis, which reviews and debunks all the major industry justifications for restricting repair.
You need to organize political power. We’ve always had sky-high polling for Right to Repair, but most people weren’t very familiar with the idea (and a large portion likely still aren’t). The Right to Repair movement has been building momentum by informing a wide variety of Americans of what’s in it for them—including many small businesses, like repair shops that form the backbone of many of our communities. We also helped widen the base of support by organizing farmers to speak up about repairing equipment like John Deere tractors, building champions in rural America.
Finally, you need to repeat your message and raise your visibility until the people powerful enough to effect change are forced to contend with your arguments. We started by running campaigns in a few states, and then watched the enthusiasm for our cause snowball over the years until Congress, the FTC and the Biden White House took notice. Shareholders for some of the worst-offending companies, seeing the regulatory risks for companies which are unprepared to function under new Right to Repair rules, have started pushing corporate boards to get ahead of the issue. Together, these forces have resulted in recent progress. We aren’t done, of course, but it does feel like we’ve crossed a threshold.
It’s been somewhat of a wild ride organizing support among repair shops, which are not staffed with political advocates. But these shop owners and workers who are most directly affected by the problem can best speak to the urgency of a solution. We spent long hours convincing them of the power of their story and getting them to share their stories and concerns with decision makers, the media, and the world.
Some of the world’s most urgent problems come at the intersection of technology and society. Technology fuels climate change and inequality, all while undermining our ability to combat these problems by fanning the flames of social discord and sectarianism. Conversely, technology also has the potential to solve those same problems. For instance, we could be rebuilding our energy systems with clean power and using efficiency gains to end poverty and work less. As some have dubbed it, we are at the “Star Trek or Mad Max” crossroads.
But our approach to these issues can’t be abstract or academic—especially in the face of organized corporate campaigns to maintain the status quo, no matter how apocalyptic the results may be. We need to be disciplined to make our case in ways that people can relate to, and dedicated enough to build a movement for change.
If the techlash can evolve to do those things, it won’t be a “bust.” It might just save the world.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.