- Apple opposes a new Oregon law that would ban parts pairing.
- Parts pairing violates the right to repair and sends millions of devices to landfills.
- Apple likes to control everything.
For a while, it looked like Apple was really getting behind the right-to-repair movement, but now it’s back supporting anti-repair bills in state government. What’s happening?
Last year in October, California signed the Right to Repair Act into law, forcing companies to offer parts, documentation, and other repair-friendly resources for many years after purchase. Apple supported this legislation. Now, Oregon is on the bandwagon, with one crucial difference. It wants to ban the practice of parts pairing, and Apple doesn’t like that at all.
“Parts pairing makes some repairs impossible to complete outside of Apple’s ecosystem. It leads to more expensive repairs and a ton of unnecessary waste because it forces refurbishers and independent repair shops to trash mostly good devices instead of being able to harvest parts from them,” Elizabeth Chamberlain, iFixit’s Director of Sustainability, told me via direct message.
So, what is parts pairing? It’s a practice that uses software to lock spare parts to a single device and to prevent you, the owner, or independent repair shops from replacing parts.
For example, if you crack your iPhone’s screen, you might think you can just buy a spare and—with a steady hand and a good online guide—swap in the replacement. Parts pairing, though, requires that you use software to ‘bless’ this replacement part.
Without this software handshake, the replacement screen won’t work properly. The FaceID camera might not operate, and the automatic true-tone ambient light sensor won’t do its job.
And this isn’t just about stopping third-party knockoff parts from working in iPhones. One can imagine that Apple might want to protect the user from dangerous, substandard batteries or other parts that might compromise the security of the iPhone. But this happens even if you try to use a genuine Apple part.
This might sound like an annoying problem, but it’s pretty niche, right? After all, who repairs their own phone? There are two answers here. One, it’s easier than you might think to do many repairs yourself. And two, the main victim of this practice is not the device owner, but the independent repairer. And also, as we shall see, the environment.
The Opposite of Green
Parts pairing makes it hard or impossible to harvest old, broken gadgets for parts. A broken iPhone or iPad is still a great source of batteries, cameras, a screen, and other spares, but thanks to parts pairing, it all has to go to the landfill or the recycling plant. For all its green talk and genuinely good work in reducing packaging, shipping, and emissions, and running its corporate business and data centers off renewable energy, Apple’s stance on parts-pairing is completely anti-environment.
For example, at the Oregon hearing, Juan Muro, of the Portland-based recycling and reuse facility FreeGeek, said that of the 15,000 Apple devices that came into their recycling facility in the last year, they could only refurbish 300, thanks to parts pairing.
“Parts pairing drives up the cost of repair and dissuades consumers from pursuing repair, instead directing them toward purchasing new. This adds to the volume of devices produced and to the volume of perfectly good devices that are wasted while they still have much more life. Unfortunately even as legislation is passed in the right direction, these blockers that manufacturers implement grow in tandem,” Marie Castelli, head of public affairs at Back Market, a marketplace for renewed and refurbished devices, told Lifewire via email.
So why is Apple doing this? The most likely answer is control. Apple infamously likes to control every part of its products, from hardware to software, and from production to repair. We’ve seen it in the App Store, and now we’re seeing it in the courts. And this control freakery comes at the expense of the environment, and a user’s right to own and repair their own devices.
“The opposition to the Oregon bill by Apple, juxtaposed with their support for a similar bill in California, highlights a complex strategy that may aim to shape the legislation in a way that minimally impacts their control over repairs while appeasing right-to-repair advocates,” Rich Goldstein, leading patent attorney and IP strategist at Goldstein Patent Law, told Lifewire via email.
The right to repair is fundamental to people actually owning their devices and is especially important when everything has a chip in it and seems to be disposable. The only way to ensure this is with the law, and that’s why this legislation is so important to the world—and so scary for Apple.
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