Right-To-Repair Gains Steam, Promises Lower Costs For Device Owners

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Ever since the beginnings of the smartphone revolution, consumers have seen flagship phone prices steadily increase year after year. Today, it's no longer all that shocking to see price tags that start well north of $1,000 for each new top-of-the-line device that comes to market. And while some people chalk that up to the price of staying on the cutting edge – a great many more people now view their smartphones as significant investments.

For that reason, as prices have risen, smartphone owners have increasingly pushed back against manufacturers who insist that they have no responsibility to supply spare parts and replacements for owners whose devices suffer post-purchase damage. That is unless they're the ones doing the repair work (or it's done through some authorized channel like uBreakiFix in Samsung's and Google's case).

But all around the world, there's a growing chorus of voices that are now calling for laws to be amended that would force smartphone manufacturers to give owners the right (and access to the tools and parts) to repair their phones. This right-to-repair movement is gaining steam everywhere – and it may not be long until the dam breaks, and right-to-repair legislation starts to become the rule rather than the exception. Here's a look at a few places where right-to-repair laws may soon go into effect.

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A Breakthrough in the EU

The most significant movement toward right-to-repair is happening in the European Union, where the European Commission has put forward new regulations that would force smartphone and tablet manufacturers to make their latest devices user-serviceable by 2021. That’s so significant because the rules will cover 27 nations in the Eurozone, representing the largest single market to institute such rules. And the regulations also mandated that all phones sold in the European market adopt a suitable charger type, increasing interoperability and availability for certain types of repair parts.

Roadblocks in Canada

While the EU moves forward with its plans, smartphones and other electronic manufacturers have managed to stymie similar Canadian efforts. This year, a right-to-repair measure was voted down in the Ontario legislature after significant pushback from the major industry players. But the bill's sponsors insist that they're not going to stop trying to get a similar measure passed.

And in the province of Quebec, another similar bill is winding its way through the legislative process. Like the earlier attempt, the Quebec bill would force manufacturers to make replacement parts and user manuals available to consumers to service their devices. Plus, the bill would also make it so warranties would remain intact despite an owner's attempt to repair their device, which would prevent manufacturers from discouraging repairs by threatening to void device warranties due to unauthorized repairs.

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Right-To-Repair on US Ballots

In the US, that path toward right-to-repair has seen even more roadblocks than it has elsewhere. First and foremost, electronics manufacturers had successfully used the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to argue that the software that runs their smartphones was proprietary and, therefore, should be protected from unauthorized access via the repair process. But by the end of 2019, 20 states were in the process of considering right-to-repair legislation that would shift the balance of power back in favor of consumers.

And today, Massachusetts is considering expanding its landmark 2013 right-to-repair law via a ballot question during this year's presidential election. And while the specifics of the law deal with automotive data access, advocates of the right-to-repair see the successful passage of the expansion as a model that other states could follow concerning smartphones and other electronics – primarily because it could serve as a precedent on ownership of proprietary data contained in a consumer-owned device.

The Bottom Line

The EU regulations coming into effect in 2021 will likely be the thing that prompts quicker change elsewhere in the world. Much as the GDPR forced other countries to revisit their data protection laws, the same might happen with right-to-repair. But in the meantime, the move mentioned above by some smartphone manufacturers to create more straightforward and less expensive repair options could be seen as something of a precursor.

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In other words, they may already see the writing on the wall and are coming around to realize that their stranglehold on the repair of their products might be coming to an end. And any way you look at it, that's excellent news for smartphone and tablet owners who are growing sick of watching their expensive devices become either obsolete or not worth fixing due to minor repairs costing more than a replacement would. Stay tuned.