What is the Right to Repair Movement – and why do we need it?

I originally wrote this short piece for the Centre for Entrepreneurial Agri-Technology website. The original article can be found at https://ceat.org.au/what-is-the-right-to-repair-movement-and-why-do-we-need-it/


How long have you owned your mobile phone? 1 year? 2 years? 3 years?!

If you’re like me, you probably buy a new phone every couple of years. As new phones and updates are released, it always seems as if my old phone gets slower and slower. I’m sure you’ve experienced this too.

When new devices hit the market, manufacturers rush to abandon support for their old products in order to shift their focus to their current offerings. This strategy makes sense from a business perspective – it allows them to continue pumping out products to bring in revenue – but at the expense of both the consumer and the environment.

Repairing your devices inevitably becomes more difficult (and sometimes even impossible) as time goes by and as the quantity of genuine spare parts dries up. If you attempt to perform a repair with a non-genuine part, there’s a good chance you might be breaking a user agreement that you agreed to when you started using your device. If this happens, the manufacturer might detect your modifications and limit the functionality of your device or make it useless until you visit a certified repairer.

These practices are designed to make you abandon your old device and upgrade to something new and shiny. It’s known as “planned obsolescence”, and the two largest players in the smartphone industry are guilty of it. Apple and Samsung have both faced hefty lawsuits around the globe for implementing what are widely regarded as anti-consumer practices.

But it’s not just smartphone users being impacted.

Farmers – who believe they have the right to repair their own agritech equipment – are at the forefront of what’s now known as the Right to Repair movement.

The movement asserts that we all have the right to repair our own things and that manuals and diagnostic tools used by manufacturers should be made available to the public. These policies seek to end the monopoly that manufacturers have created on repair.

In a modern John Deere tractor, for example, a significant number of operations are controlled by proprietary computer systems that only the manufacturer has the tools and manuals to correctly diagnose and repair. The cost of hiring a manufacturer-approved repairer and buying genuine parts to carry out repairs is so costly that farmers in the US have taken to buying up 40+ year old tractors because their absence of computer systems makes them easier and cheaper to repair.

In response to the movement, in 2018 John Deere committed to “begin voluntarily making repair tools, software guides, and diagnostic equipment available for ordinary farmers to purpose beginning January 1, 2021”. We’re yet to see a trace of these promised tools.

The 2020 pandemic has significantly accelerated the Right to Repair movement and it’s currently in full swing:

Until Australians are granted the right to repair, we will continue to suffer from policies that value profits ahead of the environment and the consumer; agriculture equipment will continue to sit idle in paddocks while waiting for costly manufacturer-approved repairers to visit; and our farmers will continue to be left worse off.