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‘Authorized Service Provider’ Programs Undermine Our Right to Repair Electronics

Tesla is stonewalling an independent repair shop in Denmark, just like Apple and other manufacturers do in the United States every single day.

Tesla's ongoing battle with an independent repair shop in Denmark is emblematic of a growing trend: Technology companies simply do not want third parties to repair their products.

Electrek, a news website that covers electric cars, energy, and the like, has been documenting the plight of Emil Ellefsen, a former Tesla employee who opened a Tesla service center in Kastrup called Autoskadestuen A/S. But Ellefsen's shop has been unable to become a "Tesla Approved Body Shop," which would give it access to discounted parts and Tesla repair manuals. Tesla says that Denmark doesn't need any more repair shops, even though Tesla's two service centers in the country have wait times of up to three months. Tesla, of course, gets to bring in additional service revenue by monopolizing the repair market.

Why care about Tesla's repair infrastructure in Scandinavia? Well, the strategy Tesla is using to monopolize repair in Denmark is the exact same one Apple and other electronics manufacturers have used in an attempt to monopolize smartphone repair in the United States.

Read More: A New Advocacy Group Is Lobbying for the Right to Repair Everything

Before it had set up a robust Apple store repair infrastructure, Apple used to hand out "Authorized Service Provider" designations to independent stores around the country. Authorized Service Providers can purchase parts directly from the company and have access to Apple's internal service manuals. But, in 2010, as Apple became better equipped to repair a large number of phones, it stopped accepting new applications to the program. It has not opened them since. Meanwhile, an analyst estimated that Apple's in-house service team does about $1 billion worth of repairs every year.

"Each manufacturer shall provide access to manufacturer's diagnostic and repair information system for purchase by owners and independent repair facilities"

Thankfully, car manufacturers can no longer decide which car repair shops can work on cars in the United States. But computer, smartphone, and electronics repair in the United States works much like car repair works in Denmark.

Image: Tesla

The Massachusetts 'Right to Repair' Initiative

There are thousands of places in the United States where you can get a Tesla or any other car repaired. It's easy to find a car repair shop in part because Massachusetts passed the "Right to Repair" Initiative in 2012, a law that requires manufacturers to provide service manuals to essentially any repair shop that wants them.

"Each manufacturer shall provide access to … manufacturer's diagnostic and repair information system for purchase by owners and independent repair facilities on a daily, monthly and yearly subscription basis and upon fair and reasonable terms," the law states.

Vehicle "Right to Repair" bills regularly popped up for about a decade before the Massachusetts law was passed—each time, auto manufacturer lobbying killed the bill. Massachusetts finally managed to get the bill on a ballot initiative, and it overwhelmingly passed with 86 percent of the vote.

Read More: How the Electronics Repair Industry Works

That was landmark legislation. Though it only technically changed the law in Massachusetts, most manufacturers have decided to offer repair manuals nationwide, because it would be essentially impossible to stop independent repair shops in Massachusetts from leaking the documents online or from sharing them with shops in other states. And so now, in the United States, repair shops can pay $3,000 annually to become a Tesla Approved Body Shop (every car manufacturer has a similar program).

This has obviously been a very good thing for consumers: Now, instead of being forced to rely on manufacturer-owned service centers, they can go to any independent repair shop, which has the ability to get documentation from car manufacturers.

Electronics and the 'Right to Repair'

While car companies now offer repair manuals to independent shops or consumers, electronics companies are not legally required to, and the vast majority of them don't. In practice, this means independent iPhone repair shops must learn how to fix phones by trial-and-error or by relying on third party repair guides from sites like iFixit.

There is a massive grey market for smartphone components

Replacing an iPhone screen is no longer a mystery because so many people have opened and repaired them on their own, but repair professionals who want to fix burnt-out LCD fuses and other esoteric and complicated repairs must either find pirated schematics online or have an advanced knowledge of how circuit boards fundamentally work to have a shot at successfully repairing one. It's also incredibly difficult for a small repair shop to turn a profit fixing less popular products if they have to guess-and-check each time they run into a new repair.

Image: Apple

"Asking for a manual isn't unreasonable, because if the way manufacturers monopolize repair is by refusing to let people understand the equipment, you're not actually preventing repair, you're just making it less efficient," Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of Repair.org, told me. "Anyone can open a product and figure it out methodically, but what you do is slow it down, making repair impractical to be the foundation of a business."

Similarly, electronics companies have no obligation to sell replacement parts to repair shops, and so they simply don't. This forces independent shops to source parts directly from China and take them off of used devices, which has led to the rise of a massive grey market for smartphone components. Many imported smartphone parts are of dubious origin, varying quality, and may be counterfeit (i.e. an Apple logo is put on an inferior part and is sold as "genuine").

Apple and other manufacturers have worked with the Department of Homeland security to seize parts that are being imported to the United States and there are many documented cases of independent repair shops being raided for using counterfeit parts; invariably, the shop's owner says they thought they were buying legal parts.

All of these roadblocks give manufacturers a distinct advantage over independent repair shops and cuts down on consumer choice and repair shop competition.

To remedy this, consumer and independent repair advocates have pushed for electronics-specific legislation that mirrors the Massachusetts car repair law. Earlier this year, New York considered the "Fair Repair Bill," which would have required manufacturers to sell repair parts and guides under "fair and reasonable terms" to independent shops and consumers. Apple and other manufacturers lobbied against the bill and killed it.

This is of course not the end of the fair repair dream: Gordon-Byrne's Repair.org is an advocacy group that was established earlier this year with the express goal of trying to get a fair repair bill passed somewhere—anywhere—in the United States. The hope is that, like we saw with cars, it won't make sense for manufacturers to hold back repair information once it's required to provide it in at least one state.

"It just takes one state, then the rest will fall like dominoes," Gordon-Byrne said.

Image: Sean MacEntee/Flickr

Why Denmark Matters

Ellefson's experience trying to set up a repair shop in Denmark shows that without regulation, companies have little business incentive to give up their stranglehold on the repair market. But Tesla's compliance with Massachusetts law in the United States also shows manufacturers can work with independent repair companies without driving manufacturers out of business.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment, but, in general, electronics companies are increasingly turning a profit on fixing and refurbishing their own products. Repair is unlikely to be a huge source of revenue for Tesla right now, but perhaps it could be in the future as more Teslas break down as they get more miles on them. It's no wonder, then, that the company would like to do as much of its own repair as possible.

Since Apple stopped handing out "Authorized Service Provider" designations, independent iPhone repair businesses have had to master China's grey market or risk being shut down by DHS. Few repair shops even bother fixing other types of smartphones, because sourcing parts and figuring out how to do the repairs just isn't profitable. Government regulation successfully revitalized the automotive repair industry; there's no reason it won't work for electronics, too.