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Washington Bill Would Make it Illegal to Sell Electronics That Don’t Have Easily Replaceable Batteries

iPhone CPU throttling controversy is fueling a new round of state-level right to repair legislation.

Jason Koebler

Jason Koebler

Image: iFixit

A bill that would make it easier to fix your electronics is rapidly hurtling through the Washington state legislature. The bill’s ascent is fueled by Apple’s iPhone-throttling controversy, which has placed a renewed focus on the fact that our electronics have become increasingly difficult to repair.

“It was introduced before [the throttling] news broke, but that’s become something constituents and legislators have sunk their teeth into,” Jeff Morris, a Washington representative who introduced the bill told me on the phone. “They can say ‘this is what we’re talking about’ and point to this as the type of thing that is accelerating the demise of their technology so they have to buy the next model.”

Late last year, Apple confirmed that it slows down the processor speeds of iPhones with older batteries. This performance decrease can be fixed by replacing the battery, but Apple's replacement program has a weeks-long waiting list and the company has fought against third-party repair of its phones at every turn.

Image from Washington Bill SHB2279

A wave of so-called right-to-repair or fair repair bills that would prevent companies from having repair monopolies have been introduced in states around the country. Last year, 12 states introduced bills that would require electronics manufacturers to make repair information available to consumers and third-party repair shops and would require them to sell replacement parts for electronics. It would also prevent them from using software locks to prevent repair or from remotely bricking electronics that use aftermarket parts. Already in 2018, 17 states have introduced fair repair bills.

Though passage in any state would have important ramifications for consumers nationwide, the Washington bill, called SHB2279, is worth focusing on for a few reasons.

The bill is cosponsored by 11 other representatives across the political spectrum and Thursday was moved out of Morris’s Committee on Technology & Economic Development, an important step toward passage that puts it ahead of bills introduced in many other states. If passed in Washington, information and parts made available there would likely filter out to the rest of the United States.

The bill Morris introduced also goes further than any other state’s legislation because it seeks to tackle the growing trend of manufacturers creating electronics that have difficult-to-replace batteries.

Starting in 2019, the bill would ban the sale of electronics that are designed “in such a way as to prevent reasonable diagnostic or repair functions by an independent repair provider. Preventing reasonable diagnostic or repair functions includes permanently affixing a battery in a manner that makes it difficult or impossible to remove.”

"With Apple phones in particular, they glue the battery in the case, so for me, that sounds like a purposeful attempt to make it so you couldn’t repair the phone"

Morris told me this provision in the bill came out of a conversation with an independent repair shop owner in his district, who noted that many electronics now use glued-down batteries, which makes them difficult to repair and much harder to recycle, because batteries are flammable when shredded. There is currently no easy way for recyclers to remove the batteries from MacBook Pros at scale, for instance.

“With Apple phones in particular, they glue the battery in the case, so for me, that sounds like a purposeful attempt to make it so you couldn’t repair the phone,” Morris said. “It helps accelerate the path of those devices to the waste stream. So we’re trying to keep the philosophy our state is behind, which is recycle, repair, reuse.”

It is worth noting that many people can and do replace batteries in iPhones, but it’s not particularly easy. It’s too early to say whether Apple would specifically have to redesign the iPhone to comply with this law. But Apple’s Air Pods and Microsoft’s Surface Laptop (among many other new electronics), cannot be disassembled without being completely destroyed, making battery replacement impossible.

Unsurprisingly, tech companies have lined up to oppose the pro-consumer bill.

Earlier this month, a coalition of 14 different tech trade groups—including the Consumer Technology Association, the CTIA, the Telecommunications Industry Association, the Computer Technology Industry Association, and the Entertainment Software Association—called the bill “unwarranted” in a letter to Morris opposing the bill.

Representatives from some of these groups—which represent Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, Comcast, Electronic Arts, and hundreds of other major tech companies—have also testified against the bill at hearings in Washington.

As has happened in other states, these groups say that allowing consumers to repair their own electronics would lead to cybersecurity and safety issues, though the industry has yet to put forward a coherent argument of what, specifically, would be at risk.

“With access to technical information, criminals can more easily circumvent security protections, harming not only the product owner but also everyone who shares their network,” the letter, which was obtained by Motherboard, stated.