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Internal Documents Show Apple Is Capable of Implementing Right to Repair Legislation

A leaked internal document obtained by Motherboard outlines a program that looks almost exactly like the requirements of right to repair legislation that has been proposed in 20 states.

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Mar 28 2019, 3:57pm

Image: Shutterstock

As Apple continues to fight legislation that would make it easier for consumers to repair their iPhones, MacBooks, and other electronics, the company appears to be able to implement many of the requirements of the legislation, according to an internal presentation obtained by Motherboard.

According to the presentation, titled “Apple Genuine Parts Repair” and dated April 2018, the company has begun to give some repair companies access to Apple diagnostic software, a wide variety of genuine Apple repair parts, repair training, and notably places no restrictions on the types of repairs that independent companies are allowed to do. The presentation notes that repair companies can “keep doing what you’re doing, with … Apple genuine parts, reliable parts supply, and Apple process and training.”

This is, broadly speaking, what right to repair activists have been asking state legislators to require companies to offer for years.

“This looks to me like a framework for complying with right to repair legislation,” Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit and a prominent member of the right to repair movement, told me on the phone. “Right now, they are only offering it to a few megachains, but it seems clear to me that it would be totally possible to comply with right to repair.”

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Manufacturers across the board—including tractor companies like John Deere, appliance companies like LG, and tech companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung—have slowly but surely monopolized the repair of their devices by implementing software that prevents repair, “authorized repair” programs, and by tightly controlling the sale of replacement parts to independent companies. Right to repair legislation that has been introduced in 20 states would return access to consumer goods to the consumers themselves by requiring electronics manufacturers to sell replacement parts and repair tools to independent repair shops and the general public. It would also require them to make internal repair guides and diagnostic tools public.

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Apple, John Deere, and the trade organizations that represent them have lobbied against this legislation all over the country over the past few years and have thus far been able to prevent any bills from becoming the law of the land. In the past, for example, Apple’s lobbyists told a Nebraska state lawmaker that the legislation would turn the state into a “Mecca” for hackers and “bad actors.” A letter obtained by Motherboard that was sent last month to a Georgia lawmaker by 17 trade organizations that represent consumer tech, video game, wireless, home appliance, and air conditioning companies (including Apple) says that right to repair legislation “threatens consumer security and safety” and “stifles innovation.”

The internal Apple presentation does not say who the company plans on rolling out its program to, but it notes that there are “3,700+ Apple Authorized Service Providers” and shows photos of four repair chains: Mobile Kangaroo, based in California; AA Mac, based in the United Kingdom; Simply Mac, based in Salt Lake City, Utah; and Makina Technologies, based in Dubai. Mobile Kangaroo, AA Mac, and Makina Technologies all say that they have “access to Apple diagnostic tools” on their websites, suggesting that it has already been rolled out to these companies. Mobile Kangaroo told me in an email that it recently got "premium status" from Apple but did not answer questions about the Apple Genuine Parts Repair presentation.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment, and neither did Makina Technologies, AA Mac, or Simply Mac.

The program described in Apple’s presentation is different from Apple’s standard Authorized Service Provider program, which allows repair companies to only complete specific, Apple-approved repairs; harder repairs require those companies to mail the phone back to Apple for service.

“Apple authorized technicians can switch out screens and batteries and they essentially can’t do anything else,” Nathan Proctor, who is leading consumer rights group US PIRG’s right to repair campaign, told me on the phone. “Reversing that policy to let them do more standard repairs is a step toward right to repair and evidence that the people working on this issue have forced them to change.”

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The internal Apple presentation undercuts many of the arguments that electronics industry lobbyists have made, namely ones that note that repair is too difficult for any “unauthorized” people to do or that argue the security of products could be undermined by giving diagnostic tools to independent companies. Apple executives have in the past argued that iPhones are too "complex" for the company to open its repair supply chain. The presentation, however, notes that people outside of Apple are perfectly capable of doing good repair work. It says that independent repair companies will “own [their] customer” and that “you stand behind your workmanship.”

“Manufacturers say it would undermine their security model, but if it’s possible for them to do what this document is saying and roll out their diagnostic software to thousands of unaffiliated companies, then lobbyists have been lying to legislators,” Wiens said.

This raises questions, then, about why Apple is opening up its repair programs—even on a limited basis—while its lobbyists continue to fight legislation that would do just that. Wiens and Proctor believe that Apple is trying to kill the legislation by telling lawmakers that it's given the repair community what they want.

“It’s an attempt to reduce pressure from the public for right to repair legislation,” Wiens said. “They’re negotiating on their own terms.”

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There’s already a precedent for this in the right to repair world. Last year, soon after California introduced a right to repair bill, the Equipment Dealers Association, which represents John Deere and other agricultural giants, agreed to give farmers some minor concessions by promising to make repair manuals, product guides, and diagnostic service tools (but not parts) available to farmers by 2021.

As a result, the California Farm Bureau Federation, which nominally represents farmers, ultimately stopped pursuing right to repair, and the legislation was dropped (it was reintroduced this year.) Which was the point all along: “There are several big wins that come to mind as we look back on 2018,” John Lagemann, a sales and marketing executive at John Deere, told an agricultural trade organization at the end of last year. “We rallied around the Right-to-Repair issue and were successful in thwarting that legislation in several states.”

And so while Apple may be softening its stance on independent repair and may be preparing to make important concessions, it’s not a reason to give up on fighting for legislation that actually enshrines fair repair policies for all consumers, not just a few larger independent chains.

“It’s still short of giving freedom to the consumer to make decisions to fix their own devices,” Proctor said. “I think it’s a sign that they know that we’ve kind of won the public messaging that they’re changing their policy to something they didn’t want to do, but what we’re asking for is the freedom to make choices for ourselves about the products we’ve bought and own.”