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When old technology broke, you could fix it yourself or get a guy down the road to do it for you. If that failed, you could find a repair shop that would get the job done for much less than going straight to the manufacturer. With newer products, those options are disappearing. It is now often impossible to fix our own stuff.

This change was not accidental. Companies deliberately design products to prevent us from finding replacement parts. They don’t even make information available to repair shops. Manufacturers have actively undermined our right to repair what we buy, and in doing so, they’ve called into question whether we truly own our purchases at all. Increasingly, the answer is no.

This change places a financial burden on us, restricts market freedom, and does lasting damage to the environment. In response, a growing number of people are demanding a change. They are insisting that our right to repair be enshrined in law.

What Is the Right to Repair?

This is the right to fix technology yourself or have someone other than the manufacturer do the work for you. This concept isn’t listed in the Bill of Rights, but that doesn’t make its existence seem like any less of a given. If you buy something, it’s yours. If it’s yours, you should be able to fix it.

This seems obvious, but take a look at the things in your home. Can you fix the device you’re reading this on? What about the game console under your TV? If your smart speaker suffered from a physical defect, do you have any option aside from asking for a refund or sending it back for repairs? Are you aware of a repair shop you could send it to instead?

Why Do We Need Laws?

Over the past century, companies across any number of industries have increasingly designed their products to become obsolete Planned Obsolescence: Why We Can't Have Nice Things Planned Obsolescence: Why We Can't Have Nice Things How much money are you wasting due to "planned obsolescence"? In this article, we explain what that is, why it should concern you, and what you might be able to do about it. Read More . Some started making proprietary parts that kept owners from extending how long a product lasts. This tactic offered a way to grow profits by increasing the number of times consumers needed to buy the same product over the course of their lives.

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Today, many smartphones and tablets are designed to prevent you and I from cracking them open. Apple went so far as to create a special screw to prevent consumers and repair shops from getting inside.

Being the only one who can make repairs provides a company with a monopoly, so they can charge as much as they want for replacements. Most people won’t want to pay that price To Repair or Replace - That is the Question To Repair or Replace - That is the Question Read More and opt to buy a new one instead. Either way, the manufacturer makes more money.

This isn’t just a consumer tech problem. Farmers can have to haul a tractor hundreds of miles to get a manufacturer to fix the onboard computer. That’s a painful loss of time and labor. The struggle is such that a black market of John Deere parts has formed, connecting Nebraska farmers with counterparts in Eastern Europe to buy unlocked tractor firmware.

In 2016, tech companies such as Apple successfully blocked a right to repair bill in New York before the measure could come to a vote. In Nebraska, John Deere and Apple both recently opposed the proposed Adopt the Fair Repair Act, with Apple’s representative arguing that such a law would make the state a “Mecca for bad actors.” Similar bills have failed in Wyoming, Kansas, Minnesota, Illinois, Tennessee, and Massachusetts.

Rural states like Nebraska are especially hard hit by the status quo. Authorized retailers tend to be in major urban areas. Nebraska reportedly has one brick-and-mortar Apple store. Only a handful of authorized repair shops exist elsewhere in the state.

Apple is hardly working alone. The various tech industry groups taking the company’s side in opposing Nebraska’s right to repair bill represent Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, and Nintendo as well.

For corporations, this is a matter of increasing profits. For repair shops, this is an issue of being able to stay in business (and being relevant). For people in the health care industry, this can be a matter of life or death.

What Can You Do Right Now?

Avoid the shiny and new. The idea of a smart home may sound nice, but unless you’re MacGyvering a system yourself, there’s a good chance you’re filling your house with non-repairable tech 4 Smart Reasons to Avoid the Smart Home Trend 4 Smart Reasons to Avoid the Smart Home Trend A lot of smart home products seem cool at first glance, but there are issues and downsides that you should be aware of -- problems that might turn you off from the whole concept altogether. Read More . On laptops and tablets, sleek often means you’re not fixing it yourself. “Smart” watches are meant to last a year or two before losing their wits, so repairs are an after thought. Good luck replacing a dead battery on a Fitbit.

Look for screws. If you can open a device using readily available tools, that’s a sign the manufacturer intends for other people to operate on the hardware. That person may need to be an expert, but at least the option is there.

Consider free and open source software whenever possible. This community considers the ability to fix and edit your own software to be a fundamental right Open Source vs. Free Software: What's the Difference and Why Does It Matter? Open Source vs. Free Software: What's the Difference and Why Does It Matter? Many assume "open source" and "free software" mean the same thing but that's not true. It's in your best interest to know what the differences are. Read More . Developers also strive to support old hardware indefinitely, unlike commercial operating systems that only prioritize the latest generations of hardware. You can run Linux on a computer that a Windows technician would say is in dire need of repair Why Upgrading from Windows XP to Linux is Easier than You Think Why Upgrading from Windows XP to Linux is Easier than You Think An ideal way to give Linux a try if you're completely new to it and unwilling to invest in new hardware, is to test it out using some PCs. But how easy is it? Read More .

Avoid specialized software. As a writer, I could buy a MacBook and get access to an abundance of quirky tools. Alternatively, I can learn how to write in Markdown What Is Markdown? 4 Reasons Why You Should Learn It Now What Is Markdown? 4 Reasons Why You Should Learn It Now Tired of HTML and WYSIWYG editors? Then Markdown is the answer for you no matter who you are. Read More and become as productive on a Raspberry Pi with a keyboard and monitor as I would be on a $2,400 laptop. Then I have the option not to give my money to companies actively trying to destroy my right to repair.

Regardless of what hardware you’re using, become acquainted with iFixit. This community-supported site shows if your latest splurge is repairable.

None of these tactics would help a farmer in need of a good working tractor. It doesn’t help a doctor using equipment in a region that a manufacturer refuses to service. And some of us simply love tech too much to take a pass on many of the cool products coming out Best Tech to Meet Your 2017 New Year's Resolutions Best Tech to Meet Your 2017 New Year's Resolutions Looking to change your life? Here's the best tech for fulfilling your New Year's resolutions! We've covered topics as diverse as learning something new to staying in touch with family. Read More This is why we need to advocate for our right to repair. Consider supporting the Repair Association, a non-profit that lobbies for right to repair laws.

Pressure your representatives to propose and support right to repair bills in your state. This isn’t only an issue of consumers vs the industry. Businesses benefit from this as well. In 2014, right to repair advocates and trade groups representing automakers agreed to a deal that provides independent garages and retailers with the same diagnostic tools that manufacturers give their own franchised dealers.

Long-term, we need a circular economy that encourages everyone to get as much as possible from the resources we consume. Repairing and reusing our gadgets is a big part of making this happen.

Can We Repair This Right?

We increasingly live in a world where we own neither our data nor the apps that access those files. It’s not even a given that we can use the products we buy in the way that we wish Here's How You Can Use Android But Ditch Google Here's How You Can Use Android But Ditch Google Want to use your Android smartphone or tablet without Google? Want to use open source software? Here we take an in-depth look at exactly how to do that. Read More . At the very least, we should be able to fix things that are broken.

But sadly, repairing our gadgets is no longer a given. If we want this situation to change, we have to demand as much from companies using our wallets and the law. The internet is also a great platform for making our voices heard.

What was the last product you wanted to fix but couldn’t? Do you live in any of the states where a right to repair bill couldn’t make it to a vote? Do you agree with the companies that believe we shouldn’t have a right to repair at all? I’ll see you in the comments!

Image Credit: omphoto via Shutterstock.com

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  1. JeffreyGoines
    April 12, 2017 at 10:31 am

    I hope the "bad actors" argument wasn't the only thing preventing passage of that bill. Not giving any additional detail about the various bills, there seems to be no downside. I would especially support something that supports the farmers you mentioned.
    But for consumers I'm not sure I see the urgency. You conflate interchangeable parts with repair tech training and certification. I can't imagine legislation requiring Apple to use a common screw type for cases. And certification would only matter to preserve a warranty.
    Also a great deal of obsolescence is due to faster more powerful hardware and more demanding software. The solutions you suggest just won't work for the vast majority of users who just want something that works and have no interest in nuts and bolts.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      April 14, 2017 at 7:33 pm

      I would argue that the urgency for consumers is largely the waste of money and the negative effect on the environment. The desire to have something that works without any interest in the nuts and bolts has arguably blinded many of us to the change in how things are now made.

      Companies are increasingly designing products to become outdated before their time. If you need a new graphics card because you want to play more demanding games, there's no way around that. But if you need a new fridge because you bought one that has outdated software that doesn't receive patches and is vulnerable to internet attack -- even though it still does a good job of keeping your food cold -- you're now out another thousand dollars and that's one more thing rotting in a landfill. Car manufacturers could design cars that are meant to last decades and provide infotainment systems that are easily swappable, but they rather you view your lack of Android Auto as a reason to buy a new car. Unfortunately, market demand isn't forcing companies to change, and legislation can only go so far. This is a change that starts with hearts and minds.

  2. Howard A Pearce
    April 10, 2017 at 1:51 pm

    " Manufacturers have actively undermined our right to repair what we buy, and in doing so, they’ve called into question whether we truly own our purchases at all. Increasingly, the answer is no."

    Totally false !
    The products people choose to buy and the products people choose to sell is their decision - and not sthat of governemnt.

    And you do own you product. Whether you own the guarantee for these these products or own how these products must be buiilt is absurd. Guarantees are contracts/agreements between the seller and the buyer - they are not owned by one or the other

    "In response, a growing number of people are demanding a change. "

    As if that demand for a change is a validation of what they want.
    Consumers have the choice to buy a product or not - or start a new company to build the products they want. They have no right to demand what others produce of how they produce it.

    MUD's seeming support for the fascist view of the state dictating how things be produced and what agreements must be entered into is alarming.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      April 10, 2017 at 2:40 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to write out a detailed response! You should know that the views expressed in this post are mine, not MakeUseOf's.

      You and I seem to disagree over whether the state of the marketplace (absent any involvement from any government) is an accurate representation of what consumers want. I believe there are many more factors influencing how products are made than what we choose to buy. Consumers would love to get 70 miles per gallon of gas, but that alone didn't get manufacturers to make fuel efficient cars. It took legislation to get the industry to advance to where we are now. On a similar note, manufacturers are now racing one another to make electric cars. That's more in response to legislation (many countries and cities around the world are passing strict fuel emissions restrictions) than consumer demand, since electric cars aren't yet selling all that well. But legislation to increase fuel economy or produce cleaner air are the results of what people want, even if we're willing to buy an old fuel-inefficient vehicle simply because we need something to get us to work.

      Whether people influence the market via their buying decisions or by pressuring their representatives to pass legislation, both are the results of people. It's a false dichotomy to say that if a company makes a repairable product of its own accord, it's the result of people, but if a company makes a repairable product as a result of legislation (that consumers pushed for), then it's not the result of people. Government and corporations are two different ways for people to organize, and in a democracy, citizens *should* have more influence over the former than the latter. We get to elect our representatives. We do not have a say over who runs a company, not matter how large an influence it may have on our lives.

      In a market filled with competition, where entry costs are low and new entrants appear all the time, we don't need legislation to push for a fair system. Someone can make an ideal product and people will buy it. But we're living in a world of increasing consolidation, where consumers have only a few choices (if any at all -- many cable providers have monopolies), and the cost of entry is astronomical. In such an environment, pushing for legislation is one of the best tools available to consumers. Manufacturers and retailers understand the benefits of shaping the law to increase their own well-being. In my opinion, consumers should too.

      • Howard A Pearce
        April 10, 2017 at 2:46 pm

        So in short you support the state telling associations how they must associate and what rules they must follow.

        A clear violation of freedom of association which covers business associations too ! - Wee Wikipedia definition.,

        I support that civil right - you would rather the state intervene to satisfy your personal views of what associations you deem appropriate or not - what I call a fascist view of state-mandated associations.

        As for my mentioning MUD - it is my way of saying they need other views besides authoritarian ones like yours

        • me2
          April 10, 2017 at 4:52 pm

          I vehemently support a "right to repair". Our "rights to......" have already been stomped on too much in just about every aspect of our lives.

        • Johng
          April 10, 2017 at 7:59 pm

          What he is asking for is similar to the magnuson moss warranty act, which says I can use any parts I choose and any company I choose, to complete repairs. By not letting me or anyone else repair, seems by proxy, a violation of the warranty act. Outside of the warranty period is another story.

        • Alex
          April 11, 2017 at 2:18 am

          I am sorry, sir, but you just don't have a point.

          Your whole comment is dumb and biased. I take it you are a high-rank executive at one of such companies or have so much money you can't care less about the right to repair what you buy. Anyhow, your comments clearly show you've lost ground and know little to nothing about the everyday struggle undergone by the working class to get a hold of their stuff.

          I have never commented on MUO before but I felt the urge to speak up and say how irrational your point of view is.

          Have a good day.