The old saw “they don’t make them like they used to” has taken on new meaning as complex products make repair difficult or impossible.
Increasingly, this is by design – as a way for manufacturers to control the profits from electronics, household appliances, and machinery in the agricultural and other sectors, after the point of sale.
“They do this by putting in place design features that make it difficult for the end user to repair the product, and by using software and DRM – digital rights management – to make it difficult as well to get it repaired” says Rodrigo Samayoa, a campaigner for the digital rights advocacy group OpenMedia. “They also restrict the sale of parts.”
In response, a coalition of tech nerds, tinkers, environmentalists, small-scale manufacturers, farmers, and lawmakers are fighting for the “right to repair.” They want products to be repairable, and replacement parts, diagnostic tools, and repair information available.
The idea appears to have broad backing. In a poll of nearly 1700 Canadians, commissioned in May by OpenMedia, three-quarters of respondents said they would support right-to-repair legislation. The poll also indicated that while only a quarter of respondents said they were familiar with right to repair, support increased with awareness.
“As soon as a bill for right to repair is proposed, lobbyists from Apple, John Deere, Samsung, and Microsoft come in and immediately start lobbying politicians to oppose it.”
Such legislation would keep electronics out of landfills and create jobs in the repair sector, says Barb Hetherington, co-founder of Zero Waste Canada, a non-profit group that advocates for a circular economy.
“It promotes the local circle in the circular economy, because if you can repair locally and retain the value, you are significantly reducing the environmental impact of that product.”
Much of the world’s broken electronics are offloaded to the developing world, where the World Health Organization says workers risk their health prying copper, gold, silver, and other valuable metals from busted televisions, computers, smartphones, and other gadgets. The rudimentary recycling often happens in family homes and without protective equipment – exposing workers and their children to lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, fire retardants, and other toxic materials.
In Europe, right to repair has been cast into law for some industries. Under new EU rules, manufacturers of appliances, computers, televisions, other plug-in electronics, and lighting will have to build their products to last longer and provide spare parts for their machines for up to 10 years. The products also have to be repairable with common tools. In the US, right to repair bills have been introduced in around 20 states.
“Meanwhile in Canada, the only legislation we’ve seen was a bill in Ontario proposed by Liberal MPP, Michael Couteau,” says Samayoa. “It got voted down pretty fast.”
According to reporting by VICE media, the bill was killed after lobbying from an industry group representing Apple, Panasonic, and other Big Tech companies – a familiar fate for US right-to-repair legislation.
“It shows how entrenched powers are benefiting from this, from not allowing the right to repair to come to Canada,” Samayoa says. “It’s the same story we have seen all throughout the United States, where as soon as a bill for right to repair is proposed, lobbyists from Apple, John Deere, Samsung, and Microsoft come in, and immediately start both attacking the idea and lobbying politicians to oppose it.”
Still, Samayoa says OpenMedia is hopeful momentum is building for federal legislation, or for provincial legislation that will set a precedent, break the levy, and have national legislation follow.
Canada does have a right-to-repair agreement in place for automobiles, and Samayoa says it’s the reason you can take your car in to a mechanic of your choice, or fix it yourself.
Scott Smith is a machinery designer for Saskatchewan-based Honey Bee Manufacturing, which makes aftermarket harvesting heads for combines. He says monopolistic practices by large agricultural equipment manufacturers – behind the guise of digital copyrights – are shutting smaller players out of the marketplace.
Smith says a combine manufacturer recently told Honey Bee that the digital technology to couple Honey Bee’s combine head to a new model of combine would be kept an in-house secret. Smith says this is contrary to Canada’s Competition Act.
“Ownership is broken. We pay the money for the full product, but we only retain ownership of the physical stuff that can break and that we have to pay to repair.”
“The layer of technology they put on there gives you a marginal increase in customer value,” Smith says. “But it creates a huge revenue stream for the [manufacturer], for data collection and data sales, and it provides the ability to put digital locks and keys in place that prevent anyone else from participating on the equipment. So it stops being a platform for innovation, and it becomes a walled garden platform of market exploitation.”
The technology also creates more points of failure that, absent onboard diagnostics – and conveniently for the manufacturers – require expensive company service technicians to fix, Smith says. For farmers, this means big repair bills and costly downtime.
It’s also put used machinery dealers in a bind. Beholden to the manufacturers for parts and service information, Smith says the dealers are “on tippy toes” in hopes of not breaking the fragile relationship.
Smith is worried that language in the yet-to-be ratified USMCA trade agreement will entrench digital copyright laws that will make it impossible for Canadian companies to make aftermarket equipment for US-made machinery. He’s contacted several government departments and is now petitioning Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada for a remedy.
“Ownership is broken,” says Smith. “We pay the money for the full product, but we only retain ownership of the physical stuff that can break and that we have to pay to repair. But all the digital content – to unlock a phone, jailbreak it, put on a different operating system, modify the code to suit our application better – all of that is illegal. We sign away ownership the first time we boot up a computer, or turn the key on a combine.”
This article appears in our December 2019-January 2020 issue.