Right-to-Repair Groups Don’t Buy Apple’s Answers to Congress

Last week, Apple responded to a series of questions that the US House Judiciary Committee sent to it back in September as part of a broader antitrust probe. In addition to addressing questions about App Store policies, its web browser Safari, and the company’s data collection practices, Apple also answered a series of questions about its hardware repair programs. It emphasized that it doesn’t restrict repairs or refuse to repair gadgets that might have been fixed previously by unauthorized technicians.

For right-to-repair advocates, though, Apple’s answers weren’t good enough. Proponents of a more open source approach to repairing gadgets say that Apple’s on-the-record responses are examples of “expert question-dodging” and, in some cases, are “downright false.” Apple’s responses have even raised questions about the definition of a “repair”—a kind of consumer tech version of what the meaning of the word “is” is.

That’s according to iFixit, a business built on DIY electronics repairs and one of the more consistently vocal groups in the world of product repairs and sustainability. (iFixit cofounder and CEO Kyle Wiens has written opinion columns on this topic for WIRED.) Now the right-to-repair arm of the US Public Interest Research Group is also weighing in, saying Apple is trying to “weave around key criticisms.” The group is lobbying for Congress to take a harder look at Apple’s claims.

“The fact is that Apple, and many other manufacturers, take all manner of actions that restrict repair, which result in higher costs for consumers and a faster rate of obsolescence,” says Nathan Proctor, director of the US PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign. Proctor also argues that when Apple offers replacement products instead of repairing a device, it is effectively refusing to repair.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment about its definition of repairs.

A List of Questions

It all started back in September, when leaders of the US House Judiciary Committee requested documents from Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Alphabet (parent of Google) as part of an antitrust probe into competition in digital markets. Separately, US Representative David Cicilline, who is chair of the antitrust subcommittee, sent a list of wide-ranging questions to Kyle Andeer, Apple’s vice president of corporate law. Twelve of those questions were related to Apple’s policies around electronics repairs.

The “right to repair” movement has gained more attention over the past couple of years, as concerns around sustainability and the global environmental, rapidly evolving electronics production cycles, and the influence that tech companies have over our lives converge in one perfect political maelstrom. In short, some tech companies have tightly controlled the repair processes around their products for years, and many even suggest that tinkering with a product will void its warranty (while a federal statute restricts these kinds of conditions).

Lobbyists on behalf of the tech makers have said that letting consumers and unauthorized repair shops fix gadgets could lead to serious hazards or allow hackers to exploit insecure products. But proponents of open repairs say that companies like Apple and Microsoft effectively have a monopoly on repair processes and that consumers should have access to the same parts and tools—both hardware and software—required to fix their own electronics.

In Apple’s response to Cicilline, published last week, the company says that it doesn’t block consumers from using repair shops that “offer a broader range of repairs than those offered by Apple’s authorized technicians.” It notes that there are tens of thousands of Apple-authorized repair technicians working at Apple Retail Stores and third-party stores. (In June, Apple extended its repair services to nearly 1,000 Best Buy stores in the US.) The company says it would not refuse repair services to a customer if that person had their device previously fixed by an unauthorized repair shop, and—this is the statement that really raised eyebrows—Apple claims the cost of providing repair services is greater than the money the company makes off of repairs.

To Repair or Replace

iFixit and US PIRG both contest some of Apple’s responses, particularly around the ways in which Apple may or may not advise against non-authorized repairs. Another point they take issue with is Apple’s use of the phrase “same unit repair,” which is worth unpacking. Many key components within an iPhone or Mac can be repaired, Apple says in its response, but “same unit repairs” aren’t possible for all products because of the challenges around disassembling and reassembling devices.

In other words, a customer might go into the Apple Store or other authorized repair shop for a fix, and the repair might be so complex that the product is effectively replaced. The topic of “repairs” not only becomes one of semantics but also raises the question of whether Apple (and other electronics makers) could be slotting full replacement devices into a definition of repairs. Proctor, of US PIRG, says in his blog post that this is Apple attempting to “create a new category of repair.”

Kevin Purdy, a writer for iFixit, hits even harder, saying some of the repairs Apple performs are “disingenuous.” He says there are instances when a repair to a solid-state drive or a Touch ID sensor on a Mac laptop will result in the replacement of the motherboard, which he likens to “prescribing a heart transplant for a common flu.” “Only Apple can, with a straight face, claim that they offer ‘repair services through refunds or replacements’ on some devices,” Purdy writes.

(On a personal note, this has happened to me at least twice. When I attempted to get the cracked screen on my Apple Watch Series 2 repaired, I was eventually told by an Apple Store employee that the pricey “repair” would mean a replacement of the whole watch module. Another time, my nonworking MacBook Pro keyboard was diagnosed as a liquid-damaged machine and resulted in the replacement of the logic board, display clamshell, top case, bottom case, battery, keyboard, trackpad, and more. It cost $755.)

Apple’s inability to fix certain modular parts could as much about its design decisions as its repair policies. “If any single part fails, it shouldn’t result in a replacement. But they’ve designed themselves into a corner,” iFixit’s Wiens says, referring to Apple’s attention to sleek, thin products, which may be aesthetically pleasing but equate to hard-to-access glued parts, whether that’s in a laptop or an AirPod.

Wiens points to Microsoft’s new Surface 3 as an example of what electronics makers could be doing: Previously, if you wanted to swap out a Surface battery you had to replace the whole thing, but now the laptops are easier to disassemble and reassemble.

“The engineering triangle is always cost, quality, price,” says David Lakatos, the chief product officer for Boston-based 3D printing company Formlabs. “In this case it’s difficult to draw the line between a company protecting itself from the market of used devices and lost profit, and on the other side, how much more expensive a product would be if they didn’t use the type of design or type of glue that optimizes for a single shell, that has some nonreversible elements to it.”

Apple’s definitions of “repair,” “same unit repair,” and “replacement” might be an ancillary part of the overall right-to-repair argument between tech makers and repair advocates. But it’s this kind of verbiage that Wiens calls a “key part of the arguments,” because Apple saying certain products can’t be repaired (and that they instead must be replaced at a higher cost) is partly what drives consumers to seek out other options at non-Apple repair shops, he says. Consumers might even consider fixing products themselves, which would be easier if they had access to the right parts and manuals—which is the foundation of the whole right-to-repair movement in the first place.

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