Hilary Shohoney, the executive director of Free Geek, thinks computer manufacturers don’t want old products repaired. They want people to buy new. So they put up all kinds of barriers to repair.

Hilary Shohoney, the executive director of Free Geek, thinks computer manufacturers don’t want old products repaired. They want people to buy new. So they put up all kinds of barriers to repair.

Kristian Foden-Vencil

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Blake Swensen remembers the day he fell in love with tinkering.

This was 50 years ago in Alaska, and the small plane his father was flying crashed. Swensen, 6 at the time, doesn’t know whether it was an unexpected gust or the plane was too full of caribou meat, but either way, they were now in the middle of nowhere, it was snowing, and cell phones had yet to be invented.

Still, Swensen’s dad found a way.

“I think there was a backpack that he strapped to the tail,” he said. “There was some duct tape involved and some wire. And I just remember it being so interesting in how he accomplished this feat of getting that plane back together and working, and we were able eventually to fly it home.”

Swensen now runs the Tinker Camp in Portland, a program that tries to teach kids that same lesson: “The challenge of it, the acquisition of knowledge. The thrill of doing something that not too many people do ... Those kinds of things get you really charged up.”

Blake Swensen learned the necessity and joy of fixing stuff watching his father fix a downed plane. Now he runs the Tinker Camp in Portland for kids.

Blake Swensen learned the necessity and joy of fixing stuff watching his father fix a downed plane. Now he runs the Tinker Camp in Portland for kids.

Kristian Foden-Vencil

That’s why he’s supporting House Bill 2698, a bill pushing the “Right to Repair” and currently making its way through the Oregon legislature. The bill would require manufacturers to sell the parts, tools and manuals necessary to fix any household product with a chip in it.

Anyone who has ever tried to replace a computer battery or fix a broken washing machine knows that manufacturers don’t make it easy. They use screws with special heads that are hard to open, or they won’t sell the necessary parts or provide the service manual. So the “Right to Repair” bill would make life easier and cheaper for people who want to fix an old laptop and give it to their kids, for example.

An independent repair shop might charge $200 to replace a battery, while sending it back to the manufacturer could cost three times as much.

“We need this to stay alive,” said Hilary Shohoney, the executive director of Free Geek, a Portland nonprofit that takes secondhand computers and refurbishes them to donate and sell.

Standing in a closet, packed wall-to-wall with hundreds of Apple Macs, she explains that none work. But Apple won’t sell Free Geek the parts to repair the machines because it is not an officially sanctioned repair shop.

“Apple will tell me all the time that they’re making it possible to buy parts, but there are limitations on that purchase ability, like we have to be able to sell an amount of new product every year that is outside of what we’re actually able to do,” Shohoney said. “The last time that we went to look to become Apple-certified the only place that we could find training was a dot on the map in the Philippines where there were no roads and no information about how to contact them.”

Portland nonprofit Free Geek has rooms full of old computers that can't be fixed because it's so difficult to get the parts.

Portland nonprofit Free Geek has rooms full of old computers that can't be fixed because it's so difficult to get the parts.

Kristian Foden-Vencil

After hearing of Shohoney’s problems, Apple provided OPB with a link to its independent repair program, which will give businesses the same parts, training and repair manuals used by authorized service providers.

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Shohoney used the link to attempt to register. Days later she was still waiting. She said she’d be happy to send a tech to get trained, but Apple doesn’t say how long that might take or where it might be. So she’s looking at thousands of dollars in expenses, and Apple can still turn her down at any stage, for no reason.

She thinks the truth is manufacturers don’t want old products repaired. They want people to buy new. So they put up all kinds of barriers.

“(They’re) trying to make it so that we feel like it’s too complicated to solve, and if we feel like it’s too complicated to solve, maybe we’ll just drop it,” she said.

Kyle Wiens is the CEO of iFixit, a company that makes specialized tools to open computers and phones. He agrees with Shohoney: “They’ve put together a program to pretend like it means we that we don’t need legislation, where actually no one is getting certified to Apple’s program because they make it so difficult,” he said.

In a press release, Apple said that following the launch of its independent repair program in 2019, over 140 US companies have joined its independent repair program.

David Edmondson, a spokesman for the computer trade group TechNet, said that if someone wants to repair their computer or take it to an unauthorized shop, they can. There are aftermarket parts available on the web and tools to open machines and fix them. But, he said, doing so often voids warranties because untrained staff will be doing the work.

“The government forcing manufactures to give out the digital and physical keys to all electronic products, is not a smart approach. It should be focused on protecting consumers, not adding more risk,” he said.

In some newer computers, technicians say the batteries have been glued down, making it just about impossible to replace them and keep the computer running.

In some newer computers, technicians say the batteries have been glued down, making it just about impossible to replace them and keep the computer running.

Kristian Foden-Vencil

Charlie Fisher with the Oregon Public Interest Research Group is pushing the “Right to Repair” bill. He said the environmental ramifications are potentially enormous.

“We estimate that if Oregonians were able to extend the life of their phone for just one year, it would be the equivalent of removing 8,100 cars off the road in terms of carbon emissions,” he said.

The “Right to Repair” concept started nine years ago in Massachusetts, where voters gave smaller independent garages the right to repair cars by making manufacturers sell them the necessary tools and manuals.

After the vote, the industry agreed to sell the tools across the country. So Fisher is hopeful.

“I think one possible outcome is that Oregon passes this, and it essentially becomes de facto policy for the country,” he said.

But Oregon is not alone. ‘Right to Repair’ legislation is circulating through 25 states this year.

A public hearing in Oregon is scheduled for March 31.

There is one caveat to the Massachusetts bill. While manufacturers were agreeing to sell tools and manuals across the country, they were also putting ports into new cars so computers can diagnose engine problems.

It was a cool new feature, but it also made cars harder to fix again. Now the whole issue is in court.

Tommy Hickey works on “Right to Repair” efforts in Massachusetts and says Oregonians need to stick with one message to get their bill passed. “You bought the product, you should be able to get it fixed where you want,” he said.

He also recommended supporters focus their bill on one sector. It’s a recommendation supporters already following. A “Right to Repair” bill failed in Oregon in 2019, partially because it included everything from the right to repair farm equipment to medical devices.

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