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Big Tech’s right-to-repair programs need fixing

In summary

New electronic device repair reforms don’t go far enough. We need legislation that requires manufacturers to make parts, tools and service information available to everyone who needs to fix their own devices.

By Sander Kushen, Special to CalMatters

Sander Kushen is a state advocate for CALPIRG, a public interest organization that works to protect consumers and public health.

Last month, Google became the most recent tech giant to announce plans to expand access to the parts and tools consumers need to fix their own devices. Echoing similar announcements from competitors like Samsung and Apple, Pixel phone owners will be able to buy parts to make common repairs, such as swapping out a battery or display.

These announcements follow widespread calls for right-to-repair reforms, which would provide owners and independent repairers with all the materials they need to fix modern devices. If devices are repairable and their lifetimes are extended, e-waste will go down. 

Consumers support policies that allow them to fix things themselves or take them to an independent shop instead of being forced to go to the manufacturer’s authorized shops. 

While Google is taking a step in the right direction, its commitment doesn’t go far enough. That’s why state Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman, a Stockton Democrat, has introduced Senate Bill 983, which would provide consumers access to the parts, tools and service information everyone needs to fix their own things. By removing barriers to repair, consumers would have access to everything they need to fix their tech at a fair and reasonable price. 

Omar Gonzalez, a high school senior at Madison Park Academy in Oakland, has tinkered with electronic devices since he was a child. “The process is fun, and it’s super rewarding when you’re able to fix something,” he said. Hoping to expand his repair skills, Gonzalez joined Oakland Unified School District’s Chromebook repair internship program last summer. Gonzalez and his fellow interns fixed an average of 20 to 30 computers each day, totaling 3,353 Chromebooks. But they had to send more than 8,330 laptops to electronic waste recycling facilities. Because only 17% of e-waste is recycled, many of those devices will end up in the landfill. 

This doesn’t surprise repair experts, who say the devices are intentionally designed to be difficult to fix. For example, Chromebooks have batteries and parts secured with industrial-strength adhesive and plastic clips that are easily broken. While Google does offer a Chromebook repair program for schools, it covers only a limited number of models. Due to a general lack of part, tool and documentation availability, thousands of Chromebooks end up in the trash.

Despite the fanfare, Google’s new repair program will only cover Pixel phones. Nothing about it will help Gonzalez save Chromebooks from the scrap heap.

It’s yet another example of a new repair service that doesn’t go quite far enough. Last year, Apple announced its own self-repair program, and in March, Samsung announced its program to expand access to repair. By offering modest concessions to appease legislators and consumers, these companies hope to avoid major changes that would expand the right to repair in a meaningful way.

The limited scope of these programs is exactly why we need right-to-repair legislation. Consumers, independent repair shops and students like Gonzalez shouldn’t have to rely on corporate altruism to fix broken devices.