By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Last week was a big one on the right to repair beat. As part of his broad executive order to promote competition in the U.S. economy, President Joe Biden directed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on restrictions that limit the ability of consumers to repair products they own.
According to Verge, President Joe Biden’s latest executive order is a huge win for right to repair:
Tucked into the executive order that covered 72 initiatives to promote competition in the US economy, Biden specifically asked the FTC to crack down on “unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items, such as the restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment.”
The FTC had already begun to explore ways to implement a right to repair. In May, the agency released a comprehensive report, Nixing the Fix: an FTC Report to Congress on Repair Initiatives, which endorsed the right to repair and debunked opposing arguments. The report concluded “there is scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.” (See my May post for further details, Big Tech Goes All In to Thwart Right to Repair Initiatives, for further details)
Now, the combination of the Biden directive with the leadership of Lina Khan as the newly-installed FTC chair should see federal rights to repair initiatives emerge – and soon I hope (see my post discussing the Khan appointment, Biden Taps Lina Khan to Chair the FTC).
Wozniak Endorses Right to Repair
Last week, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak made quite a splash when he endorsed the right to repair. As Gizmodod noted in Steve Wozniak Voices Strong Support for the Growing Right to Repair Movement:
In a recent Cameo video made in response to another major right to repair advocate Louis Rossman, Woz said his busy schedule had previously prevented him from getting deeply involved with the topic, he now felt it was time to speak out on something that has “really affected me emotionally.” After doing his own research on the issue, Woz said he “totally supports” the right to repair movement and that the people behind the movement are “doing the right thing.”
I include the full video here. It’s only nine minutes long and is well worth your time.
Wozniak’s endorsement is significant, because as regular readers know, today’s Apple is a leading opponent of the right to repair (see these previous posts for further details: Apple Blinks on Right to Repair: Or Does It?; and Rotten Apple: Right to Repair Roundup).
I wish I had a transcript of this video for those who don’t have the time to watch it – or prefer to read rather than watch. I’ll mention some high spots and I ask readers to forgive any transcription errors.
Wozniak discussed the open source environment and thriving repair culture that once prevailed not all that long ago for radios and TVs. Manufacturers shipped devices with schematics and technical specifications, and used standard, widely available parts. Consumers were themselves able to open up these devices, remove tubes, and take them along to local shops and grocery stores to test the tubes and replace those that were causing the malfunctions. Alternatively, a consumer could take the broken device to a local repair shop – every town had one – and have them fix the device.
Then, unlike now, it wasn’t necessary to return the device to the manufacturer or an authorized repair facility to fix it. Nor was it necessary to toss a malfunctioning device onto the trash heap because the cost of repair was too high.
Electronics enthusiast were able to take the standard parts, and schematics, and build devices. Wozniak himself built his first computers, using open source inputs, and schematics, and a personal TV. Although this was not an area I was particularly interested in, I recall when I first entered MIT in the autumn of 1979, many of my classmates were using devices they’d built themselves.
The phone company was another matter entirely. At that time, Ma Bell still had a monopoly, and Wozniak relates how “you were not allowed to touch the telephone lines in your home with anything electronic…. No one was allowed to manufacture a telephone or answering machine – even though they could build much better ones than Ma Bell.”
A bit of a digression here. For those of us who lived through that period, Lily Tomlin’s incomparable Ernestine, the telephone operator, memorably satirized Ma Bell’s monopolistic machinations – and abysmal customer service.
Back to Wozniak. Those who repaired or designed new devices, relied on using standard parts, and specifications, to fit the parts in a way that either fixed their device or created a new one. Now, if a user destroys a product by messing around with it, that’s on you – or as Wozniak said, “that’s your tough luck, you lost your product.”
But rather than stopping there, and saying game over, and incidentally, giving the lie to one of the principal arguments made by today’s Apple for blocking a right to repair – that tinkerers will destroy their products, or even hurt themselves – Wozniak instead maintained, “But, you know, If you know what you’re doing, and you’re doing certain steps that others have solved and found that you know worked pretty well, you can repair a lot of things, at low cost, but, it’s even more precious to know that you did it yourself. So, why stop them? Why stop the self-repair community? Why stop the right to repair people?”
Wozniak described how the Apple II was shipped with full schematics and designs. “And software source listings. Code listings. Totally open source. The Apple II was modifiable and extendable.” Users modified, improved, and upgraded it, so the modified machines had functions that products as shipped did not.
“This product was the only source of profits for Apple for the first ten years of the company,” Wozniak explained. “This was not a minor product and it was not that successful on pure luck. There were a lot of good things about that being so open that everyone could join the party.”
Wozniak believed such a freewheeling environment produced a better outcome than a locked down, protective one would have. “Sometimes, when companies cooperate together with others, they can actually have better business than if they’re totally protective and monopolistic, and working with others, just totally competitive.”
Wozniak questioned whether such an environment hurt Apple – if at all. Instead, he believed it “was very motivating for creative minds. Believe me. That’s how I grew up.”
He concluded by laying out his rationale for supporting the right to repair (which, incidentally, I couldn’t have expressed better myself). “Anyway, it’s time to recognize the right to repair more fully. I believe that companies inhibit it because it gives the companies power… you know, control… you know, over everything. And I guess in a lot of people’s minds, power over others equates to money and profits. Hey. Is it your computer? Or is it some company’s computer? Think about that. It’s time to start doing the right things.”