Analysis

Who owns your tech?

And do you have the right to repair it?

It happens to the best of us: You're walking down the street and idly pull out your phone, only to helplessly watch it slip from your fingers and land on the sidewalk with a sickening crack. The screen is busted. What is the next step? Given how expensive smartphones are these days, it's likely you'll take yours somewhere to get it fixed, rather than replace it entirely.

But what should be a logical and easy thing is in fact quite complicated. Many modern digital devices are difficult to repair — and this is by design. What's more, companies like Apple will often void consumer warranties if their devices are fixed at a local mom and pop shop rather than by their own company's professionals. This annoying reality has given rise to the idea of a "right to repair": a movement designed to give consumers the ability to both fix and fiddle with their devices. At its core, the right to repair movement has emerged because the digital era has fundamentally challenged what it means to own something.

During a recent FTC panel called "Nixing the Fix," advocates argued that modern tech companies try to discourage customers from fixing their devices using deterrents like stickers that warn the device's warranty will be void if the sticker removed. But they also open and repair devices using specialized tools that ordinary people or repair shops just don't have access to. All of this makes it much more likely that users who can't afford "standard" repairs will simply ditch older products for new ones. Inevitably, this has environmental consequences, and contributes to a culture of disposability and planned obsolescence.

For their part, device makers have two key arguments in favor of these restrictions: Firstly, tight designs that can be tricky to repair are part and parcel of the march toward thin, light, waterproof devices. The traditional screws and gaps that accompany easier to fix tech don't mesh well with the design ideals of companies like Apple. Secondly, device makers claim that in locking down their tech, they are protecting both cybersecurity and intellectual property.

Uncomfortable as it is, there is an argument to be made for a certain degree of disposability during times of rapid technological change. The difference in capability between a 2009 smartphone and a 2019 smartphone is astonishing, and there is little functionally lost in not being able to repair a six- or seven-year-old device. However, the advance of smartphone technology has slowed, and smartphones are lasting longer. As such, users need to be able to fix them after the standard one-year warranty expires.

When it comes to the cybersecurity argument, a team of security experts calling themselves Securepairs suggests device makers are trying to have their cake and eat it too. Securepairs argues that a tech company "can't argue that it designs hardware to be long lived and repair-able, then arbitrarily constrain the rights and ability of its own customers to service their own property, using security and safety as their argument."

The actual issue here is not security, but control and, of course, profit: Apple's devices work best with other Apple devices, and the Genius Bar is the only real place to get your Mac or iPhone fixed in an "authorized" manner.

The larger question is: Who owns your technology? This issue goes beyond just devices and permeates our lives. Netflix and Spotify have shifted us away from owning media to streaming it; services like Uber and Airbnb are part of a broader trend toward pay-per-use instead of outright ownership.

There is an odd tension here: The digital revolution has given more production control to individuals. After all, you can now potentially start your own mini-media empire from your apartment, 3-D print mechanical parts at home, or code your own app. But on the other hand, tech companies strip control from users with policies that are utterly lacking in transparency, from how to repair smartphones to questions of personal privacy and surveillance.

Recently, there was a flurry of chatter about FaceApp, which showed people what they might look they when they grow old. First came the hype, then the blowback, as privacy concerns were raised, then the resigned communal shrug, as many thought to themselves: "Don't all these apps harvest our data, anyway?" As John Herrman at The New York Times suggested, this is the way things go in tech: Something emerges very quickly, we can see why it might be suspect, but we're swept up in it before we've really had a chance to react with caution. Control just slips out of our hands, as we helplessly watch.

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