Right to Repair: The Growing Movement for Consumer Autonomy

By Gabriel Cabello Torres, Technology Editor

In today’s day and age, almost everything high in value comes with a warranty and even insurance. It only makes sense. When you make an expensive purchase, you want to protect it and keep it brand-new for as long as possible. However, with the way technology continues to advance, it has become harder to properly maintain electronics, from phones to hospital equipment.


So what happens when manufacturers purposefully set up barriers that forces you to either pay an outrageous amount for repairs or simply buy another item? Consumers start to push for change and experts that can assist in making the fixing process easier step up. This technological activism has been known as the “Right to Repair” movement and has been on-going since its inception in the 2000s.


The “why” is always as important as the “what” when you’re looking at a group of people banding together to make a change. The first recorded legislative action regarding “Right to Repair” was a proposed bill in 2001 called “Motor Vehicles Right to Repair Act.” Plenty of workers understood that barriers set by manufacturers can severely impair the diagnostics and solutions for a malfunctioning machine. Eventually, this phenomena crept towards more than just cars. It’s no surprise that more and more people started to grow tired of the monetary abyss that is fixing machinery.


Companies like Apple are infamous for their near dictatorial hold on device repairs. If your Apple device is experiencing issues and you take it to an Apple store, you can expect one of two outcomes: either an absurdly high quote to repair the device or the recommendation to buy a new one. For the average consumer, shelling out well over $1000 on a whim isn’t exactly affordable, prompting people to either give in and buy a new device or find alternatives to fixing their issue. 


Repair centers have their own obstacles to face, because companies like Apple purposefully hide device schematics. Pairing this with how Apple punishes consumers for trying to find alternative solutions without unnecessarily breaking the bank makes the situation even more difficult for the consumer.


How can the consumer be punished for doing what they want with a device they purchased? Apple has a policy that voids a device’s warranty if the consumer gets their device repaired at an unauthorized location. Repair shops can only gain Apple’s authorization to repair their devices if they sell a minimum amount of Apple products. Essentially, they have to sell their way into the “Apple certified” status.


While Apple is one of the bigger culprits of manipulating consumers into indifference towards the idea of “Right to Repair,” they’re not the only ones who do it. The initial “Right to Repair” movement was focused on vehicles, specifically cars. Over the last couple of years, cars have slowly gotten more complicated to fix. Now, vehicle repairs often require specific tools and information that are simply not available to the general public. 


This severely impacts a consumer’s freedom of choice by forcing them to pay an inflated price for an otherwise simple fix. The phrase “Knowledge is power” often comes to mind in these situations. You can’t be in control of something you simply don’t know much about. This issue has affected everyone from those with working class backgrounds to the average middle class suburbanite.


In 2022, blue collar workers were growing tired of new John Deere equipment, the repairs for which were both unreliable and unaffordable. How can a farmer work while waiting for essential equipment to be repaired? 


One hacker demonstrated how to jailbreak John Deere equipment so farmers could have complete control over newer model machinery. This daring move sparked a lot of conversation regarding the Right to Repair. Sure, there might be outright disapproval for tampering with a “pristine” machine but there’s no reason fixing your expensive equipment should be over complicated.


One of the most popular stories to emerge from this subject is one regarding McDonald’s ice cream machines. It’s widely known that ice cream machines in McDonald’s tend to break, making ice cream, milkshakes, and the signature McFlurry unavailable for purchase. 


A tech startup called Kytch made a diagnostics tool that hooked up to the Taylor C602 model ice cream machine utilized by McDonald’s. Essentially, it sent alerts for any malfunctions and gave a description of the issue. McDonald’s locales used the device since Taylor Co. was restrictive about which technicians could repair their tech. This left workers without access to the machine and impacted sales significantly. 


However, McDonald’s forbade use of the device under claims that it was a “safety hazard.” This prompted accusations that McDonald’s and Taylor wanted to steal the idea for the device themselves. The discussion soon led to an FTC investigation of the ever-malfunctioning soft serve machines. 


So many of these events have reached federal attention. Has anything been done in recent years to resolve the issue? 


Well, yes and no. Biden issued an executive order that prompted the Federal Trade Commission to take “right to repair” into strong consideration. A bill was originally proposed back in 2012 but was only adopted by a few states in a modified form. Massachusetts currently sits as the only state to fully implement “Right to Repair” laws regarding vehicle repair, but the law is currently under threat. Many states have introduced legislation to enact “Right to Repair” laws. Some are strictly for medical technology, others for agricultural technology, and so on. However, if these bills will be passed is a different story altogether.


There’s a danger to preventing access to repair tools when it comes to technology. For one, a problem with electronic and mechanical waste can become severe. Resources get depleted and aren’t always responsibly recycled. Second, making devices practically unusable when even a miniscule issue occurs is a new tactic for making money. There is no logical reason why paying for your fix should be so much more expensive than buying a brand new device. 


This inconvenience isn’t one that only applies to technology geeks or reckless consumers either. As technological advancements are made, countries like the United States are slowly becoming more and more reliant on access to technology. When roadblocks are implemented to properly use or maintain necessary equipment, the situation slowly starts to spiral out of control. 


Take healthcare for example. While there are plenty of reasons why healthcare is unreasonably expensive in the US, a case could be made for a lack of “Right to Repair” laws being another cog in the machine. Hospitals don’t have the ability to fix important resources as simple as beds for patients. The financial burden of purchasing new equipment can stretch into the thousands per item. 


Regarding healthcare, there has been discourse amongst healthcare professionals whether “Right to Repair” laws would be reliable and safe for the patients in the long run. However, the takeaway is that the idea of “Right to Repair” is something that needs to be talked about.


These issues can affect anyone. When it comes to times of financial burden, these hurdles quickly become bear traps. The more and more consumers make demands and take action, the more companies will listen. In fact, companies have already started making moves towards positive change. People like Louis Rossman, a staunch advocate for this movement, have done everything in their power to expose and educate the public about scams and the reality of tech companies’ manipulation of customers. Consumers wield more power with their purchases than tech companies think they do.