Right to Repair: Will the European Commission Have the Guts to Stand Up to Apple et al? Details on Wednesday…

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The European Commission will release its Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAC) on March 11.

Key issue: will the plan enshrine a right to repair for smartphones as part of its ecodesign directive? This would allow regulation of device design and capacity for repair, as the Commission has already done for household appliances (see EU Adopts Right to Repair for Household Appliances).

Or will the Commission roll over and succumb to the blandishments of tech lobbyists – I’m looking at you Apple – and sidestep or water down right to repair requirements?

Motherboard reported on Friday in Leaked Plans Suggest Europe Wants to Pass Right to Repair Laws for Electronics:

… Two versions of the CEAC have leaked ahead of its March 11. One draft obtained by Motherboard says the commission will “explore ecodesign requirements…for [informations and communications technology] products that the ecodesign directive does not already cover, including mobile phones,” but does not mention the right-to-repair.

Another draft of the CEAC appears more explicit. It says the Commission will “focus on electronics and [information and communications technology] as a priority sector for implementing the ‘right to repair’, including the possibility of necessary upgrades,” and explore regulatory measures for mobile phones under the Ecodesign Directive.”

Which way will the Commission jump? We won’t know until Wednesday.

Here a little context is in order. Over to Motherboard:

In 2015, the European Commission carried out a study to determine which products should be included in eco-design directives. This was the study that determined washing machines and fridges should be easily repairable. According to Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, Product Policy and Circular Economy Officer for the European Environmental Bureau—a network of people and groups dedicated to fighting for environmental legislation in Europe, that same study concluded that smartphones were one of the most important products to make repairable and that laws around that should be prioritized.

“But, for whatever reason, [the European Commission] didn’t put smartphones onto the list of products which they were going to address in [2018],” Schweitzer told Motherboard over the phone. “At the time, different excuses were made. They felt that products like smartphones were innovating too quickly, that the policy cycle couldn’t keep up with it.”

Schweitzer said he and his fellow activists believe that the Commission didn’t push smartphones for political reasons. “They weren’t willing to take on the big tech companies,” he said. “What we want them to do is commit to putting smartphones on the eco design work plan. If it’s on the work plan, they have to go through the process and develop requirements for the phones.”

Even if the European Commission opts to mandate a right to repair for smartphones, that’s only one battle in the right to repairwar. Because the big tech companies — such as Apple — will certainly fight back, as they did in January when the European Parliament voted 582-40 to set a standard charging cable for smartphones (see Europe Just Voted in Favor of Making iPhone and Android Use the Same Charger, in which Motherboard tells that story).

Apple responded with a statement, as discussed  in the Financial Times, Apple hits out at EU plans for a universal smartphone charger:

Apple has hit out against European plans to force tech companies to adopt a universal standard charger for all smartphones and other electronics, arguing that doing so would hamper innovation.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament revived a decade-long argument about mandating a so-called “common charger” for mobile devices.

Maros Sefcovic, vice-president of the European Commission for inter-institutional relations and foresight, said in a recent speech that such a scheme would be more convenient for consumers and reduce electronic waste.

“We will look at a combination of policy options, including regulatory and non-regulatory measures, to achieve our objectives,” he said, after what he called a “missed opportunity” for a voluntary approach from the tech industry.

Since Europe’s campaign for a common charger began in the late 2000s, the number of different charging cables and connection ports used by smartphone makers has reduced from dozens to three: two variants of USB, an industry standard, and Lightning, which is proprietary to iPhones and iPads.

In its first statement in response to the latest proposals, Apple said on Thursday that forcing it to ditch Lightning would inconvenience hundreds of millions of its customers and create an “unprecedented volume” of waste.

“We believe regulation that forces conformity across the type of connector built into all smartphones stifles innovation rather than encouraging it, and would harm consumers in Europe and the economy as a whole,” Apple said. “We hope the Commission will continue to seek a solution that does not restrict the industry’s ability to innovate and bring exciting new technology to customers.”

Note that the charging cable issue is small potatoes, compared to what a right to repair might do to Apple’s sales. Such a change might also reduce excess eWaste — estimated at 50 million metric tons of e-waste is generated globally per year, with an average of more than 6 kg per person; whereas total e-waste generation in Europe in 2016 was 12.3 million metric tonnes, equivalent to 16.6 kg on average per inhabitant, according to the European Parliament. Not to mention start to direct us back on a more sustainable path for our use of electronics. Imagine being able to upgrade or repair a device without having to pony up for a new device? Or to avail oneself of cheaper, third party repair repair services, rather than being beholden to the tender mercies of Apple?

So I will be watching closely to see what the European Commission will do on Wednesday.

And if the European Commission makes a courageous decision and mandates some right to repair, we must continue to pay attention to how any policy will be implemented.  You can be sure that Apple and those opposed to a right to repair will not accept any decision as final.

This is how right to repair advocates see the issue as well. As Friday’s Motherboard article notes:

“It’s a question of whether [The European Commission] has the guts to stand up to Apple,” [Janet Gunter, co-founder of The Restart Project—a U.K. based group that teaches people how to repair electronics and lobbies for the right-to-repair] said. “This is a symbolic but potentially transformative moment in policy terms. But we’re not naive. We know we’re going to have to be there at every turn.”

Schweitzer agreed. “The truth is that even if they commit to putting smartphones on the work plan, then we have to go through the whole process of going through the requirements. You never know what the outcome from that will be.”

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  1. Gregorio

    The government shouldn’t hobble innovation by setting design standards. If they would have set the design standard for charging cables five years ago, we’d likely all be stuck with those horribly inferior mini USB charging cables now.

    1. curious euro

      The only reason you had your horribly inferior micro USB cables in the first place, is the EU.
      In 2008 or so the EU threatened to pass legislation to mandate a single cable instead of the different cable for each manufacturer and each model for data connection and charging. Those were often two different ones! Each one of those was special for each phone and each one of the costm ~20€. Per cable.
      When the EU threatened, all manufacturers came to a round table with the EU and “voluntarily” agreed on a standard: micro USB, the best choice at the time. Except Apple of course who packaged an adapter with their Lightning connector with every phone.

      Approximately ten years later, USB-C started showing up on phones, and note how the EU didn’t make any fuss about it, ever. They simply accepted it even when it was not the connector they blessed those years ago, since even they could see it was a normal progression. So your “stuck with horrible” is simply bad hyperbole shilling for manufacturers aka Apple. Please troll elsewhere with this astroturf. The EU not often does some good regulation, but sometimes they actually do.

  2. TimH

    Surely Apple could offer both industry-standard AND proprietary lightning? Of course, lightning required for carplay and otrher connectivity…

  3. Ignacio

    Thank you for this JLS. The blah blah of Apple about “exciting innovation”, being bull [fb], the elephant in the room here is Mr. Trump that has showed more than once and more than twice his willing to impose whatever sanctions when a US company feels that some EU country is being unfair on their right to monopoly, to contaminate, or to squeeze the customers around the globe.

    The way that regulations work is by establishing minimal requirements on sustainability and repairability that do not impair any kind of exciting innovation as long as it complies with environmental requirements. How insensitive for the regulators to ask for this!

    Unfortunately the EU will probably show to be too bland.

  4. vlade

    TBH, the EU comission could start with a very simple thing – battery replacement.
    It’s easy to show that customers do want it – just add the batery sales for Android phones, and I’m sure with some effort one could see even how many Apple customers get their batter replaced _despite_ how hard Apple made it.

    Once you can get to the battery, it means no seamless cases, and getting to the rest of the innards becomes much easier, and “it’s hard to design it for us” way less workable argument.

    Next thing, tell Apple in no uncertain terms “Micro USB”. No lightning, no Apple proprietary, Micro USB it is, end of story.

    Apple would scream on both, but other US companies would support this, and that’s IMO the way to get the foot in the door.

    1. Ignacio

      My Samsung POS (150€) accidentaly died two weeks ago and I resorted to take the Samsung S6 (450€) that my son had left behind because it was working poorly (mainly the battery but not only that). So I took his former smartphone and removed all I don’t need (lots of apps) and it works much better than my former Samsung POS except for the battery which doesn’t last for long. The S6 was not designed for easy battery replacement but it is possible to do it (the battery costs 12$ online) though one has to unstick pieces that are glued and then re-glue them. I don’t know if Samsung has insisted on making it difficult to change battery in their newest models. It is not all about Apple.

      1. stan6565

        Come on Ignacio, you can get a S7 for about £100 on eBay. Fully working and with good battery.

        If it bricks, then you can enjoy Odin enabled flashing. Good mental exercise.

        I got 3 of them, cloned to the main one, for when the main gets broken (keeps falling out of my pocket all the time). Saves me from buying a £1000 Samsung POS, or the £1000 Apple POS.

        I mean, other than millionaires, who buys a £1000 POS anyway. Here in UK, and no doubt it’s the same in Spain, Germany, or Norway, it’s always the skint people hard-wire-addicted to whatever sh1t globalisation rams down their throats.

        1. Ignacio

          It is cheaper for me to go on with the S6 that it is working OK so I am happy with that. Plus I don’t buy another smartphone unnecessarily.

  5. stan6565

    The article should have been titled;

    “Will the EU dare to make the tech manufacturers sell products to public that are fit for purpose straight out of the box, rather than keep selling products that are designed to be defective and are designed to milk the marks, sorry, consumers, forever and ever”.

    The answer is of course, a resounding no, for not only is the EU the greatest worldwide amelioration of useless corrupt corpses, but even more sadly, and worryingly, is that all around the planet, at every level, all the so called public officials are well and truly in employ of the those whom they enable to replace the “services provision “ with “outright theft “.

    Until such time that “public servants” are sued and tried for the value of the losses/theft/corruption they impose on the poor duffers who believe they are actually voting for something or another, we are all just barking up trees.

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