Apple Spends Big to Thwart Right to Repair in New York and Elsewhere

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as scribbles occasional travel pieces for The National.

Motherboard ran an interesting piece this week, Apple Is Lobbying Against Your Right to Repair iPhones, New York State Records Confirm,  reporting on the money Apple, Verizon, and other tech trade associations are spending to thwart right to repair legislation pending in nearly a dozen states, including New York.

I first wrote about some these initiatives in January of this year, in this post, Waste Not, Want Not: Right to Repair Laws on Agenda in Some States, which discusses New York efforts as well as other initiatives to reject the throwaway culture, not only for electronics but also for other items.

Motherboard has been following this topic closely. From the latest account:

The bill, called the “Fair Repair Act,” would require electronics companies to sell replacement parts and tools to the general public, would prohibit “software locks” that restrict repairs, and in many cases would require companies to make repair guides available to the public. Apple and other tech giants have been suspected of opposing the legislation in many of the 11 states where similar bills have been introduced, but New York’s robust lobbying disclosure laws have made information about which companies are hiring lobbyists and what bills they’re spending money on public record.

Apple’s not the only company seeking to kill the New York legislation, and a motley crew of others seek the same general objective, as Motherboard reports:

According to New York State’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, Apple, Verizon, Toyota, the printer company Lexmark, heavy machinery company Caterpillar, phone insurance company Asurion, and medical device company Medtronic have spent money lobbying against the Fair Repair Act this year. The Consumer Technology Association, which represents thousands of electronics manufacturers, is also lobbying against the bill.

BoingBoing last week in Apple, CTA and Big Car are working in secret to kill New York’s Right to Repair legislation spelled out details of the nub of company objections:

The companies are especially opposed to rules that ban using [Digital Rights Management] to prevent the use of third-party parts and spares — it’s become common practice to embed just enough software handshaking in replacement parts to invoke section 1201 of the [Digital Millennium Copyright Act], which makes it a felony to bypass “effective means of access control” for copyrighted works. A manufacturer who designs their device to use (copyrighted) software to validate spare parts — something John Deere has become notorious for — can then invoke the DMCA to make it a felony, punishable by a five-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine, to make compatible components.

The BoingBoing article highlights a further irony:

Every company lobbying against competitors making compatible products has benefited greatly from their own competitive compatibility products: for example, Apple ran a high-profile, extremely successful marketing campaign (the Switch campaign) that advised potential customers on how to use Apple products to access files created with Microsoft products.

Classic Collective Action Problem

What popped out from the Motherboard account was the discrepancy between the resources being spent by Apple and other anti-right-to-repair forces, compared to those in favor of a right to repair. Again, from Motherboard:

The records show that companies and organizations lobbying against right to repair legislation spent $366,634 to retain lobbyists in the state between January and April of this year. Thus far, the Digital Right to Repair Coalition—which is generally made up of independent repair shops with several employees—is the only organization publicly lobbying for the legislation. It has spent $5,042 on the effort, according to the records.

Now, just to be clear– and to reinforce a point made in the Motherboard article– thwarting right to repair laws is only one of many issues that Apple et al’s lobbyists are no doubt acting on, so to make a straight up comparison of total resources spent by concerned companies no doubt overstates the magnitude of the discrepancy with respect to this single issue.

Still, this seems to provide an example of the classic collective action problem, as adumbrated in economist Mancur Olson’s 1965 classic, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, about the big gap between what small groups can and are willing to spend to achieve a policy objective that benefits them significantly and what larger groups– up to the size of the total electorate– can and will spend in money and time that harms them overall, but in a more diffuse way. Put another way, small concentrated groups with a common objective find it easier to organise to secure large benefits. Although the larger public may very well benefit from a completely different policy, large groups find it difficult to organize effectively to fund and pursue their policy goals.

Olson’s work is by no means the first or only on the topic, and the basic idea has been extended in many other works on how money shapes political outcomes, perhaps most significantly in Thomas Ferguson’s Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of MoneyDriven Political Systems. (I want to note in passing that Ferguson, Paul Jorgenson, and Jie Chen earlier this month published an important paper on how political money shapes Congressional votes, Fifty Shades of Green: High Finance, Political Money, and the U.S. Congress, which I intend to discuss at length if a future post).

Apple Loses its Innovation Mojo

It’s been quite some time– about a decade– since Apple launched the iPhone, its last major product innovation. Since then, the company has instead crapified some of its previous innovations– for instance scuppering the MagSafe that prevents clumsy MacBook users such as myself from damaging our laptops when we inevitably trip over the power cord (and which had once caused me to have to pay out heavily for a new motherboard for a Sony Vaio, which wasn’t so protected). Others have written on this site and elsewhere about other changes Apple has made to Macs that reduced their attractiveness to more savvy computer users.

So, given its recent record and with its foreknowledge of exactly what types of products are on the drawing board and in its pipeline, I suppose Apple thinks it makes sense  to double down on strategies such as tied repairs to try and squeeze out revenue from its customers.

Apple India Update

As for another potential source of revenues, in December of 2016, I posted another piece, Apple Chases Indian Smartphone Market By Asking Modi Government for Manufacturing Deal, discussing the financial incentives the company was seeking to penetrate the world’s second largest smartphone market: India. Although by volume, India is the second largest such market, as I discussed in that post, smartphones only account for about 30% of the total India mobile ‘phone market.

As this WSJ account noted this week, Apple Assembles First iPhones in India, the Indian market looms particularly large, as Apple has seen the slowing of its Chinese sales– which previously were a big component of the company’s overall growth.

This week we saw rah-rah reports– such as this one in TechCrunch, Apple starts assembling iPhones in India in play for the world’s fastest growing smartphone market, as well as the WSJ count mentioned above– heralding Apple’s foray into smartphone production in India.

Local accounts, such as this one in Livemint, Apple starts selling ‘Made in India’ iPhones on trial basis, have been much more skeptical about what the company has actually achieved to date– especially in light of the fanfare with which Tim Cook in December announced its demands.  Over to Livemint:

Earlier, Karnataka IT minister Priyank Kharge said that the making of iPhones in India would help Apple lower prices and gain a foothold in the Indian market. He had also expressed hope that it would bring in much needed taxes to the state as well. Apple wants to bring its component manufacturers to India to make parts and export finished phones and is seeking tax concessions on import of key components.

Yet notably, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has failed to cave on key points, according to LiveMint– contrary to what many had expected would be its response when Apple requested financial incentives to expand its Indian market presence.  As I noted in my piece cited above, Apple currently has less than a 5% Indian market share. Now, I’m just speculating wildly here– so please indulge me– but it seems that the relevant decision makers may have decided that Apple needs more sales in India more than India needs more iPhones, especially if to secure more of those would require significant state support or concessions:

However, the central government has rejected most of the demands of the US company. Kharge also had said if the centre was keen on taking on China, it should not give special treatment to Apple alone, but to other players like Samsung and Lenovo also if they are desirous of opening manufacturing units in India. Kharge had said the government should also give companies, including Apple, certain timelines, subsidies and incentives to create a level-playing field.

And, if my speculation above regarding actions taken– or equally likely, inaction allowed, that being a time-honored bureaucratic response to an uncomfortable request– is indeed correct, all I can say is: Jai Hind!

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40 comments

  1. oho

    apple is in the wrong for its repair position. but….it’s a moot point as Apple users tend to be the ones with the most vocal priority on aesthetics (eg, thin-ness and weight). And Apple products tend to cater to that demand.

    The thinner and lighter that you design electronics, the more difficult it is to repair it. You can’t have both. (eg, your phone gets held together by glue and not screws, integrated motherboards, etc).

    If you really care about repairability, cheap ifixit dot com first. they publish a repairability score for popular phone models. and for computers stay away from Apple (if you can) and look at the corporate-orientated Windows models (not the models that you see at your local Mega-Lo Mart consumer chains).

    1. Pat

      1. Considering the number of people running around with extra chargers and even chunky extra battery cases for their iPhones, I’m pretty damn sure that most of the Apple users would happily put up with a slightly thicker iPhone with a user replaceable battery. IOW they end up giving that thinness and aesthetics to make it work anyway.

      2. The same thing with the tablets and laptops.

      3. Also if smart phone users could replace their screens for a reasonable amount of money without voiding the rest of their warranty, or even without that, a whole lot of people would. I know of few people who really want to walk around using a phone with a screen of glass shards held together by what is essentially a thin piece of tape.

      Apple blocking this is largely about keeping a very lucrative business going, and even more about keeping their aura of exclusivity. This is both shortsighted and destructive because phones and computers are the least of the issues in regard to right to repair – see also automobiles, farm machinery and yes your refrigerators and washers and…

      This is going to happen whether Apple likes it or not, largely because manufacturers have gotten stupid about the you don’t own it attitude – consumers are only starting to rebel. That is going to grow as it becomes very apparent that manufacturers are NOT selling products but leasing for purchase prices, aka stealing . And standing in the way of repair is a loser in the long run because dropping the fraudulent business model and its front will be less destructive to them then people figuring out the scam.

    2. Temporarily Sane

      as Apple users tend to be the ones with the most vocal priority on aesthetics

      Do you have any reliable stats to back up this claim? Didn’t think so. Why bring it up at all…it has nothing to do with any of the points raised in the article and it really says more about you than anything else.

  2. John Wright

    I work in the electronics industry.

    Repairing a modern densely populated printed circuit assembly is tricky and requires costly equipment as I detailed in a long winded earlier posting to the previous discussion.

    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2017/01/waste-not-want-not-right-repair-laws-on-agenda-states.html#comment-2755952

    On the right to repair, some of these companies might be opposed to this legislation for other than pure service profit reasons.

    One reason is they might fear having to do triage after a poor quality third party repair or have their brand tarnished in the marketplace by apparent poor reliability after a third party repair..

    Another possible reason for their opposition to the legislation is that the legislation might require companies to release what they currently classify as proprietary information they want to keep from competitors .

    The Massachusetts S96 bill (line 14) mentions “schematic diagrams” as part of the documentation provided to the “authorized repair provider”.

    see https://malegislature.gov/Bills/190/S96.pdf

    In my experience, many complex schematic diagrams are treated as company confidential design information for internal use only.

    Hence, I would expect tech companies to resist attempts requiring them to release this information to outside parties.

    1. david lamy

      It would be easier to concede to this line of reasoning if at the point of purchase it was made clear that my purchase was for a license to use the product. Therefore it was obviously evident that the hardware remained the property of the manufacturer.
      I do not believe that to be the case for any of my computer purchases. I own the hardware. I should have a list of its constituent parts and a diagram for their connections. Yes, the production processes may be trade secrets but disassembly manuals be available at a reasonable purchase price.

      1. John Wright

        The Massachusetts bill was covering more than disassembly as it apparently requires board schematics to be released to the outside repair facilities.

        I don’t see any problem with a customer “owning” the product and attempting to fix it with minimal assistance from the original manufacturer.

        You are free to attempt to repair a board without disassembly instructions and a schematic, as I did a couple of weeks ago on a vintage 1985 Sony digital readout for a machine tool.

        I disassembled it with a screwdriver and repaired the PCA’s (at least it is working so far).

        But 1985 vintage through hole technology and tin-lead solder is a lot easier to work with than a very dense surface mount PCA assembled with lead-free solder.

        Quite possibly new consumer goods are not designed to be taken apart, or require a costly special fixture/tool to disassemble or specialized test equipment to test the repair..

        I maintain the companies do have reasons other than profits to keep repairs at their authorized facilities.

        1. Tinky

          You make a fair point, but it doesn’t explain why Apple has gone from producing products that allowed simple and very useful modular customization, to those that don’t allow any. They are undoubtedly taking advantage of their 800 pound gorilla status, and many long-standing and loyal customers suffer as a result.

          1. kees_popinga

            I had a Mac SE I bought in the 80s that I wanted to throw out but I planned to keep the hard drive.
            To open the case you had to remove pentalobular screws that were deeply recessed in the handle, requiring longer-than-standard adapters for a screwdriver.
            I ended up paying a junk hauler to open the case with a sledgehammer.
            My point being, Apple has always made it hard for consumers to mess with their splendid gear.

    2. justanotherprogressive

      Errr….I need to replace the battery in my MacBook. How hard can that be? I’ve done it with other laptops. But I have to pay a “Genius” $150 just because it is an Apple?

      1. Pat

        Well yeah, when it is designed to make you do that by unnecessarily hiding the battery. And just for the record the poor Genius is lucky to making a little above minimum wage, so it is really having to pay Apple a well over $100 surcharge to have a flunky “Genius” replace it (cost of battery with Genius hourly wage).

      2. katiebird

        I’ve replaced mine twice (the first one was recalled for fire issues) it was easy as pie — I got the battery online then followed these instructions from iFixIt. They’ve got instructions for every model of Macbook. Then I bought more memory and upgraded that myself. Next step is to get an SSD….

    3. Yves Smith

      Oh come on. I have friends who run IT firms. One ran an ISP.

      It is not hard to do any of:

      1. Install memory (even I have done this)

      2. Replace a hard disk

      3. If the computer is designed so as not to prohibit it, replace a battery

      4. Replace a fan

      I suspect readers can add to this list.

      I suspect this list accounts for >60% of repairs, perhaps even higher.

      1. John Wright

        Yves,

        But the right of repair legislation in Massachusetts is asking for schematics, which I understood to be board schematics, perhaps to allow troubleshooting/repair of printed circuit assemblies.

        Schematics should not be needed for any of your listed repairs.

        All of your repairs listed are probably already being done by independent repair shops, so this legislation may be, per your words, unnecessary for “>60% of repairs, perhaps even higher”.

        As mentioned above, if the legislation requires manufacturers to release schematics and possible test/qualification information for complex PCA’s, this could explain some of the manufacturer pushback.

        While Apple may appear greedy in this action, that may not be a completely fair assessment of their behavior.

        I have no connection with Apple and do not use their products..

        1. flora

          schematics are for the benefit 3rd party parts manufacturers and independent repair shops.

        2. Mike Mc

          Have used, sold, serviced and now repaired Macs since 1987.

          The crapification of Apple goes in cycles; the latest MacBook Pros from late 2016 are not designed to be serviced or repaired by anyone other than certified Apple technicians like myself… and it’s a pain in the neck of us, even with several hundred dollars worth of Apple tools needed to service these models.

          I think it’s a mistake, but it is their company and millions of customers the world over have voted with their dollars in favor of this approach. I live in a farm state, and John Deere is doing similar things with farming equipment that sells for six figures.

          There’s a movement against that I suspect will only grow. The sooner some significant economic disruption occurs, the faster this will happen.

          The inability of so many people today to do anything mechanical or technical for themselves is the real problem. Millennials get pranged for this all the time but let me tell you, every class suffers from this.

          I would love to see technology to be more user-friendly inside and out – not just some twee new app or interface, but easily repaired and recycled. Mr. Market will never provide this; the government will have to mandate this, but without government mandates – laws and regulations – rivers would still be catching fire and smog would still be part of urban landscapes.

          1. Damson

            The Mechanocracy is waiting in the wings for the Technocracy to self-destructive….

      2. charles 2

        But it is hard to do it right !

        IT devices, hardware of software, are made of many interacting parts that work only if the operationnal requirement of any specific part is fulfilled by all the others.

        The dirty secret of IT, and indeed of practically all complex engineered systems, is that these requirements are practically never documented exhaustively, even inside the company who is manufacturing them. It is even more true with the current practices of “agile” design and job volatility for system designers.

        You may think that a memory bar is just of memory bar, a hard disk is just a hard disk or a dvd storage device is just a dvd storage device : It is definitely not the case : I know first hand instances of unwanted behaviour, such as inability to apply OS patches (not a good thing with Windows nowadays !), linked to self-sourced upgrade/repair components as mundane as in the list above.

        That is not to say that I am against “Right to repair” laws, far from it. I am all for the disclosure of complete specification of parts, but one should not fool oneself with the belief that there is a shortcut to assimilating that knowledge. Someone has to do it before the repair and that someone should be paid. One should be careful that “right to repair” doesn’t become “right to have your device bricked by an incompetent and irresponsible technician that you refused to pay adequately”. As they say, when you pay peanuts, you get monkeys…

        1. fajensen

          The RAM blocks has a small, very brain-dead and very fast CPU on them. This device has to be programmed with the protocol that the main CPU will use (actually the memory controller onboard the main CPU) before the RAM can run at full speed.

          The browsing of two 300++ pages manuals and the writing of about 600 lines of assembly code is needed just to boot up the memory subsystem on a modern PC-like machine. The rest is the same.

          I did that job a couple of times for board support packages because I am so old that I still can comprehend digital logic. ;).

          It pays very well too.

      3. Abate Magic Thinking but NOT Money

        Get Over it

        The current de-facto halfway house between owning and renting might be unsustainable.

        It seems that if the developers and sellers of (next to magic) technology want to keep their product’s secrets and servicing totally in-house, their best option is rental, and only rental. Wasn’t it Hughes who made this his business model?

        I have had a fetish for certain bits of technology, but much of what I have owned, Is so much landfill unfortunately, so at the right price renting would make sense.

        Where government should step is in re-cycling ,and insisting on increases in efficiency. Of course, those renting-out technology should be impelled to cater for the whole market, not just take the cream off the top as it is now.

        Come on you disruptors – but no hidden agenda please.

        Pip Pip

        ps I’m just about over this body of mine – when can I bring it into the shop for replacement?

    4. H. Alexander Ivey

      Repairing a modern densely populated printed circuit assembly is tricky and requires costly equipment

      Yes, you are correct. But no, most repairs have nothing to do with circuit assembly. Most common repairs are replacing the battery, replacing the charging docking port, replacing the screen, etc. All of those common repairs simply requires knowledge of how to properly open the device, remove the faulty module (and the device is entirely built in modular fashion), and properly put it back together.

      These devices are not assembled by high tech Intel or MS workers, they are assembled by low tech Asian workers. So the device is quite repairable by non-Intel, MS, or Apple personnel.

      Right to repair is right of property – our property that we purchased, not leased.

  3. WobblyTelomeres

    Oh, the irony. When Apple was but a wee lad, it provided the source code, printed, in the user manual, for the Apple ][.

  4. UserFriendly

    Medtronic? Yes I want to repair my own Pace Maker… WTF?
    Surely there would be an exception for medical implants to prevent hacking of them.

  5. digi_owl

    I will claim that iphone crapified the smartphone market.

    Not sure if ever Apple has been a big “innovator” ever since the original Woz computer.

    Instead they have been riding the Jobs reality distortion field and and a few captive markets like desktop publishing.

    1. jonhoops

      Dude… did you ever try use a smartphone before the iPhone? You are seriously just talking out of your ass. The iPhone made using the internet on mobile easy. Not to mention how easy it made texting compared to the stupid thumb method. It also gave us an easy to use camera and music experience, plus easy GPS mapping all which was nonexistent or crap on the incumbent “smartphones”. There is a reason Apple is now worth nearly a Trillion Market Cap and has 250 billion in the bank. iPhone was a great product, and still is.

      Apple is clearly coasting now and I’m not happy about that, but your own reality distortion field is off the charts. Desktop Publishing? That was 34 years ago.

      1. a different chris

        I’m with you up to here:

        > There is a reason Apple is now worth nearly a Trillion Market Cap and has 250 billion

        Yeah but the reason is people are insane, it isn’t that their tech kung-fu is so far ahead of anybody else’s. Or even ahead at all methinks. And my family all has iPhones.

      2. Ook

        I used (Japanese) smartphones before the iPhone. Functionality was not really the issue.
        The innovation of the iPhone was really that it opened up the field of app development by standard means, versus what had previously required an embedded software approach. It was a big deal 10 years ago.

      3. fajensen

        Yup. “Back in the day” most pre-apple smartphones didn’t even have an ip-stack, they had some weird serial link over a unix-like socket to a service running on the telco network providing the ip stack. And making sure that only services on the telco network were compatible with the phone. That gave us godawful junk like “WAP”.

        The iPhone, with everything built in, bricked that nicely.

    2. oh

      There are a lot of Apple fan boys around. The one redeeming feature of Apple is that they don’t (yet) sell your personal data.

  6. Kramer

    I bet ALEC is on the case working on some manufacturer’s rights legislation to protect free enterprise from this BIG GOVERNMENT intrusion. We need some organization like a
    ALEC to represent humans, a smart ALEC. Is there an organization already working to craft model legislation for all fifty states for the benefit of all Americans.

  7. paul

    I’m not sure you should add the ‘nobel winning’ economist description to mancur olson, though, to my relief, he has no connection with the chocolate nobel.

    That would drag him down to the level of krugman

  8. charles 2

    It’s been quite some time– about a decade– since Apple launched the iPhone, its last major product innovation.

    That is a bit unfair. With Airpods , which are to standard bluetooth ear pieces what the iPhone was to the Blackberry when it appeared, Apple really cracked the problem of how wireless headphones should be used. Combine it with a next generation watch with LTE capability and improved power capabilities and you will realise that it may not be a minor innovation.

    I can’t help to think about this

  9. Larry

    It’s not just Apple that is up to this kind of chicanery. Automotive Manufacturers attempted to make it much harder for independent repair shops to conduct increasingly complicated diagnostics and repairs to modern cars. The idea was to of course lock consumers into the dealer network for repairs. Massachusetts passed a law largely preventing this and now the manufacturers have signed a memorandum of understanding respecting the Massachusetts law in all 50 states. They have not given up on changing the Massachusetts law though, with lobbying continually ongoing. We had a referendum question in Massachusetts and it nearly 90% of people were in favor of allowing independent repair shops to have access to information needed to work. And no wonder. Independent shops are not only cheaper than original dealers, they’re often far more convenient. I can drop my car off at my local shop and walk home, while my closest dealer is about 20 miles away.

    This is a large concern with any product that you essentially license from the owner. Phones run on software as do cars. The software is licensed not owned. The owner can prevent the purchaser from seeking third party help with their device. Monopolies are great!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motor_Vehicle_Owners%27_Right_to_Repair_Act

  10. PKMKII

    Just a continuation of the film industry’s freakout over the introduction of VHS, and the music industry’s attempt to outlaw the selling of used CD’s. Every corporate interest wants to be a rentier, it seems…

  11. jfleni

    If you want to repair your devices, stay far, far away from micro-swift and apple-jack, use open source software, and use good, independent repair techs; otherwise the sharks will devour you every time.

  12. Wisdom Seeker

    Author seems to have made unintended foray into what used to be “conservative” logic, but might now be considered “populist” logic:

    “Put another way, small concentrated groups with a common objective find it easier to organise to secure large benefits. Although the larger public may very well benefit from a completely different policy, large groups find it difficult to organize effectively to fund and pursue their policy goals.”

    The logical implication of this point is that the larger the scope of government, the more the special interests will use that to their benefit at the expense of the public.

    To minimize the abuse of government power by special interests, the people must stop ceding power to the government.

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