Digital Rights Watch and EFA push for right to repair to quash tech giant monopoly power

The lack of right to repair is hindering on innovation and DIY culture, according to Digital Rights Watch and Electronic Frontiers Australia.

Digital Rights Watch (DRW) and Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) have sternly warned that if big tech giants including Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft continue to be allowed to behave as monopolies when it comes to repairs, it could stifle innovation and competition.

"Repair monopolies held by major tech companies, heavy handed Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies, and onerous restrictions on documentation, parts, and third-party repair options significantly harm Australian consumers, innovation, and the planet," they said in a joint submission [PDF] for the Productivity Commission's right to repair inquiry.

The pair believes introducing the right to repair would be one way to address that market imbalance.

"A right to repair would enable consumers to make use of an inbuilt market mechanism to counter attempts at abuse of market power," the submission said.

"This counterbalance to market power would act as a kind of automatic stabiliser without the need to involve market regulators to intervene if a market failure occurred. We believe this is particularly important for technology products as the majority of such products are not manufactured in Australia."

The submission pointed out how Apple, for instance, uses "serialisation" to actively prevent independent repair of their iPhones. According to the pair, serialisation prevents hardware to be replaced even with identical parts made by the same manufacturer, unless the serial number of that component matched that which it originally was bought with.

"It is inevitable that premature replacements of technological products will continue to occur at some degree, due to consumers choosing to purchase new items. Yet we believe it is important to address negative externalities created by manufacturers that actively promote a 'disposable technology' culture," it said.

"The development of a right to repair may play a role in discouraging technology companies from such practices, and motivate them to pursue other, more environmentally sustainable revenue models.

"The right to repair will also be essential in order to create a culture shift away from wasteful consumer habits. We cannot expect consumers to take part in a circular economy if the mechanisms and incentives are not in place for them to do so, or if the incentives are actively antithetical to a circular economy."

The submission added that if repairs remained monopolised, technology manufacturers would be creating additional barriers to careers and hobbies in technology.

"Digital skills and hardware skills are fundamentally intertwined, and the ability to take apart and fix hardware, as well as inspect its code, is a critical part of developing these skills necessary to build a future-proof economy," it said.

"Proprietary machinery that deliberately obfuscates its components to ensure it cannot be repaired by third parties further abstracts the relationship between humans and the tools we use, which makes this educational journey much more difficult."

The DRW and EFA also took the opportunity to highlight that as the commission investigates how to best approach right to repair, factors such as digital security, environmental sustainability, and issues related to fairness should not be overlooked.

They pointed out, for instance, that under the Competition and Consumer Act 2010, vendors are not currently required to service and repair goods for their full useful life, rather only for a "reasonable" amount of time. However, implementing a right to repair that includes software as well as hardware would ensure potentially vulnerable devices can be made safe.

"A right to repair would ensure that vulnerable devices purchased by consumers can be made safe by repairing the software running on those devices, thereby reducing the threat to themselves and to others," it said.

"This would not require the participation of the vendor, which may no longer exist, and would prevent consumers from being punished for 'jail-breaking' devices they own and sharing the code, if the software vendor is no longer supporting the device. This facilitates community-based software support and repair efforts, as well as supporting the rights of a hardware owner to install software of their choice on their devices."

Meanwhile, the National Farmers' Federation (NFF) noted the cost of inaction with respect to repairs could result in higher repair cost; inability to use preferred repairer outside of the authorised dealer network, who is often more experienced and qualified; long distance travel to access authorised repairs as use of local repairers would void warranties; and significant delays in repairs, which the NFF described as being be "fatal" for a farm business.

The NFF also knocked back claims that access to software for the purpose of right to repair would supposedly harm public safety or cybersecurity.

"Any right to repair regime would not entail an open access data regime, where there is a free-for-all with respect to consumers' repair data. A properly defined right-to-repair regime would put consumers in the driving seat in providing access to their data, where they see benefit, and the use of data would be governed by the development of codes on the use and dissemination of data," the NFF said in its submission [PDF]. "The claims … [are] unfounded."

Communications Alliance, on the contrary, argued that enabling unauthorised repairers to use uncertified parts or install uncertified firmware on devices, could result in making devices vulnerable to hacking or illegal interception.

"We are concerned by the commission's assertion in the draft report that security concerns may be overstated. Cybersecurity is a key focus for government, and the ACCC is actively working to educate and protect consumers from scams," the Australian telco body stated in its submission [PDF].

"Allowing unauthorised third-party repairers to work on these devices, and/or to use unapproved replacement parts, could both impact connectivity and create risks to communication networks -- which are deemed critical infrastructure by government and subject to extensive rules and regulations to ensure they are protected," the Communications Alliance added.

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