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Apple Is Fighting A Secret War To Keep You From Repairing Your Phone

Your shiny new iPad Pro is on the fritz. The touchscreen is cracked and isn’t working properly. You could take it to an affordable local repair shop, but mom and pop may not know how to heat up the glass just enough to separate the LCD from the rest of the device — it’s a complicated process that involves an acute understanding of the tablet’s insides.

Once they’ve cracked open the iPad, they may not even know what to do to replace each component.

Frustrated, you turn to Apple‘s official support system. If you didn’t purchase the company’s AppleCare+ warranty plan when you bought the device, you find that replacing the screen will cost a whopping $599, plus shipping. Or, you could buy an entirely new replacement from an Amazon vendor for $674.88.

What do you do? Well, many would buy the new one and offload the busted thing for a hunk of cash, contributing to a cycle that experts say generates heaps of e-waste. It’s a problem for consumers and the planet — and Apple has actively opposed legislation that could help curb it, according to advocates. 

The Huffington Post spoke with politicians in two states who support such legislation, and confirmed through government filings that Apple has lobbied on the issue.

iFixit
A photo of a disassembled iPad Pro, used with permission from iFixit’s teardown guide.

Four states — Minnesota, Nebraska, Massachusetts and New York — have considered adopting “right to repair” amendments, which would update existing laws regarding the sale of electronic equipment. Amending these laws would make it easier to fix your devices and would help reduce “e-waste,” a catch-all term for any electronic detritus.

The New York State Senate and Assembly could approve one of these amendments next week. This would help unofficial repair shops get the information they need to fix your iPad, ideally driving down repair costs and encouraging you to squeeze more life out of your old devices — thus cutting down on the e-waste generated by our voracious appetites for new gadgets.

Apple asserts that it helps recycle millions of pounds of electronics equipment every year. But it won’t support right to repair amendments.

It’s not alone. Many electronics manufacturers resist this change. But when it comes to the sleek design of your personal gadgets — an aesthetic that makes these devices so difficult to repair in the first place — no company is as influential as Apple. The tech giant has done more than any other to create a market saturated with ultra-thin, compact devices. The popularity of the iPhone spawned smartphone imitators, much as the iPad spurred the creation of devices like Microsoft’s Surface. And slim, tightly-packed devices are difficult to dismantle and recycle

Not for nothing, Apple is also the most profitable company in the entire world.  

Apple
Apple’s experimental “Liam” robot could disassemble your iPhone for recycling if developed further. But Apple concedes it’s not ready for prime time.

Repairing And Recycling Are Linked

New York state Sen. Phil Boyle, sponsor of a “right to repair” amendment that could soon go to a vote in his state’s legislature, believes his efforts will save people money and help the environment.

In essence people are forced to buy new computers, new software and new technology on a regular basis because it’s so expensive to have them repaired at the manufacturer,” Boyle told HuffPost in a recent interview. “The landfills are filling up and they’re a very difficult thing to recycle.”

Right to repair amendments would require device manufacturers like Apple or Microsoft to make repair information and associated software updates available to independent businesses or individuals. Currently they provide this only to select businesses. Essentially, such legislation would free you from needing to mail your busted tablet back to the manufacturer for repairs because a shop down the street would have access to the information needed to fix the device, likely at a reduced cost. (There’s a precedent for this in an automotive right to repair bill passed in Massachusetts in 2014.)

A vote for right to repair measures is also a vote for good recycling practices. If Apple were legally bound to release its schematics, for instance, repair shops and recyclers alike would be able to utilize every piece of a gadget and reuse them in refurbished products.

“The link to recycling is very simple,” Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, a coalition of nonprofits and businesses, told HuffPost. “Recyclers need the same information as repair techs in order to easily de-manufacturer products for processing.”

Currently, even if electronic devices avoid the landfill, they’re often recycled via a wasteful, even dangerous process called “shredding.” That process involves pulverizing a device down to its smallest parts and salvaging whatever’s possible. For its part, Apple recognizes this process is awful and recently debuted a PR video about a more efficient, iPhone-dismantling robot called Liam that could help fix the problem. But that technology is still experimental and won’t work with the vast majority of devices on the planet.

Apple spent nearly 10 minutes trumpeting green initiatives, including Liam, at the beginning of a March 2016 keynote event. But it has repeatedly opposed “right to repair” legislation in the United States.

It has certainly come to my attention that Apple is opposed to this bill. Massachusetts Representative Claire D. Cronin, a “right to repair” advocate

It opposedsuch a proposal in Massachusetts, state Rep. Claire D. Cronin told HuffPost, and the company lobbied on another version of New York’s amendment last year.

Cronin, a co-sponsor of the Massachusetts right to repair amendment, told HuffPost her concern is that manufacturers have too much power. They oppose the legislation because they make money repairing devices.

“Currently, electronics companies are running a repair monopoly. This repair monopoly, and the subsequent lack of competition, leads to higher costs for consumers and businesses,” Cronin said via emailed statement.

“It has certainly come to my attention that Apple is opposed to this bill,” she added.

Reached by HuffPost, Apple repeatedly pointed to its 2016 Environmental Report as a means to underscore its commitments to a greener planet. In that report, Apple says it works with 160 recycling programs around the world and says it holds them to “rigorous standards of environmental compliance, health and safety, and social responsibility.” But it did not elaborate on those standards after HuffPost brought up a recent report from the Basel Action Network, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group, indicating that even some “responsible” recyclers in the United States had gone back on their word and handled e-waste inappropriately.

In other words, we don’t know for certain how Apple makes recycling programs adhere to its standards, and that doesn’t even matter if your iPhone winds up at a recycling program unaffiliated with the company.

Apple also said it does not comment on pending legislation, as these right to repair amendments are. HuffPost pressed further, pointing out that Apple’s lobbying costs are public record and that it seemed odd that a company so committed to going green wouldn’t support legislation that could help reduce e-waste. Apple would not provide an official statement, though a representative said there are no numbers indicating that its products contribute to an e-waste problem.

NICOLAS TUCAT via Getty Images
A picture taken Nov. 7, 2014, in Brive, southern France, shows smartphone screens in the Love2recycle.fr recycling company. The company collects and repairs all kind of smartphones before bringing them to the market.

Why They Resist

Part of the resistance to “right to repair” is a suspicion that the amendments could force companies to reveal secrets about how their devices are made. New York’s amendment contains a clause batting down those concerns, stating nothing “shall be construed to require an [original equipment manufacturer] to divulge a trade secret.”

They give the argument about intellectual property concerns,” Boyle told HuffPost. “To me, it’s not the strongest argument. It’s more about dollars and cents to me. It would cost them a lot of money in repair work.”

Still, trade associations like the Consumer Technology Association — formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Association — have argued that manufacturers’ proprietary information would be at risk if the laws passed.

“For example, the proposal could enable anyone posing as a repair shop to reverse engineer such a device to create counterfeit devices,” the CTA, to which Apple belongs, wrote in an statement of opposition to Minnesota’s right to repair proposal last year. “Further, there are no restrictions that would prevent a recycler from selling these assets to other non-recyclers in or outside of the State of Minnesota.”

The Repair Association isn’t particularly swayed by these arguments.

“Repair is not modification of copyrighted software — it is physical repair of physical problems using physical tools,” Gordon-Byrne told HuffPost in an email.

When companies control how your gadgets are repaired, they stand to profit. For one thing, you might see how expensive it is to replace a damaged smartphone screen or old laptop battery and opt to get a whole new gadget — adding to that e-waste problem. Manufactures can charge a premium for replacement parts and services. They can resell “refurbished” devices at a profit once they’ve been fixed up.

iFixit
A guide from iFixit, an organization advocating for right to repair amendmentsthat also makes money on repair kits for electronics, illustrates various issues people face when trying to fix their own devices. One needs to remove the entire screen from Microsoft’sSurface Pro 4 to do any repairs, for example.

Third-party gadget repair shops must figure out on their own how to fix your malfunctioning device, because consumer electronics companies are not currently obligated to provide this information about their products. That means trial and error when it comes to handling the delicate innards of your gadgets. It also means delays between a product’s launch and when repair guides from commercial services like iFixit are available.

Not that manufacturers don’t fight against these repair shops. In fact, they actively put roadblocks in place to make it as hard as possible to crack open and repair our phones and computers. Apple, for instance, uses proprietary screws in its devices and has even retrofitted them to old iPhones sent in for servicing. Chinese phonemaker Huawei has copied this design and included proprietary screws in its phones that make them harder to repair. 

And Apple has punished consumers who use third-party repair shops. 

iFixit
Removing the back camera from the iPhone 6S. Watch the full “teardown” video.

Earlier this year, the company was raked over the coals for turning iPhone 6 devices into “bricks” when it detected users had taken them to be fixed at unauthorized — and often much more affordable — repair shops.

“Error 53” is the now infamous code that popped up for users whose phones were “bricked,” or wiped and made utterly useless. Users who got Error 53 often had their screens fixed or received a similar repair that required messing with the home button on the phone, which had been programmed to synchronize with the rest of the device.

Thousands of users reported the error, some of whom never got their iPhone fixed at a repair shop, licensed or otherwise. The outcry led to a class-action lawsuit, in which attorneys claim Apple rendered iPhones useless for more than a year and blamed users for the error, without so much as a disclosure that unlicensed repair could result in a bricked phone.

Just days after the suit was filed, Apple apologized and instituted a reimbursement program for phones with Error 53.

“This was a message to all consumers that if you don’t conform to Apple’s requirements we’re going to kill your phone,” Darrell Cochran, an attorney representing the lawsuit’s complainants, told HuffPost. “They never disclosed that your phone could be bricked after basic repairs. Apple was going to say nothing about it and force all its consumers to buy new products simply because they went to a repair shop.”

“The only reason they flip-flopped was because of the lawsuit,” he added. “They knew they’d been caught.”

Samsung
Samsung’s new C5 phone is strikingly similar to recent iterations of the iPhone, illustrating Apple’s influential design aesthetic.

Long Road Ahead

The right to repair amendments aren’t perfect. It may take time for states to adopt them, and only then do they stand a chance at snowballing onto the national stage. And as worded, they are very broad — in New York’s case, enough so to include any “digital electronic equipment.” This allows many companies to unite against them. Verizon — which owns Aol, the parent company of HuffPost — stood against a fair repair amendment in Nebraska just this year, for example.

Matt Mincieli of TechNet, a coalition of electronics companies that Apple belongs to, told HuffPost that the right to repair amendments in New York, Massachusetts and Minnesota are too vague and affect too many industries to be acceptable.

“Our concern is where the line is drawn — this is uncharted territory,” Mincieli said. “In Massachusetts it wasn’t just the tech industry affected, it was your farming equipment, medical device sales, you name it.”

“What we care about is finding a good solution that we can agree on,” he added. “But all these states are looking to do different things. All it takes is one state to enact something and six more states will do it the next year. So if someone sets a precedent we want it to be right.”

Who knows what a perfect precedent will look like? There probably isn’t one. But while we search for it, companies could take a public stand. It’s happened before: Apple announced last year that it would fund a massive clean energy project in China in response to criticisms that its suppliers there were heavy polluters. 

Meanwhile, the company says it’s committed to handling e-waste properly, but it won’t respond to criticisms that it opposes legislation directly linked to reducing that waste. Until such a time, you might be forgiven for taking its commitments a bit less seriously.

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