Repairing Our Right To Fix it with Aaron Perzanowski

14 May 2024 4 Back to episodes
Digital Citizen:

Repairing Our Right To Fix it with Aaron Perzanowski

14 May 2024 Season 3

We dive into the Right to Repair with Aaron Perzanowski. Hear about the benefits of fixing our own devices rather than replacing them and the reasons why some companies create roadblocks to prevent the average consumer from doing so.

Episode Notes

Discover the social and intellectual function of repair, why our Right to Repair as consumers is so important, the ways companies are making this right difficult for the average person, and the environmental implications of buying new products rather than fixing the ones we already have.

▶️ Guest Interview – Aaron Perzanowski

🗣️ Discussion Points

  • As a law professor at the University of Michigan, Aaron teaches courses primarily focusing on intellectual property law, copyright, and trademarks. His research focuses on the intersection of intellectual and personal property and how our intellectual property shapes our relationship with the devices and products we use daily.
  • We consumers have certain rights regarding the things we buy. One of those rights is the Right to Repair them should something go wrong. This could mean fixing them ourselves or having the choice of which professional will fix them for you.
  • The act of repairing teaches us valuable skills, such as how to analyze and address problems in the world and how to be self-sufficient. Repair is often also a community effort, as it may require asking neighbors for help and learning from others who share your interests.
  • Companies have strong incentives to steer consumers towards replacement rather than repair. Undetectable software is all around us in the things we use every day. As soon as software is introduced into a product, the manufacturer can exert control over how the product is used after the sale.
  • As consumers, we must be mindful about our purchases by considering the longevity of the products. If you have a functioning device, keep it. On the other hand, if a device does break, don’t be afraid to explore repair options before immediately purchasing something new. However, the repair will cost just as much as a brand-new item in some cases.
  • Understanding how your technology works is important in the problems we hope our government will address. If we don’t understand it ourselves, we don’t have enough ground to weigh in on the topics. Repair helps people understand their technology even better, and engaging in repair can make us better digital citizens.

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Ricardo Signes: Welcome back to Digital Citizen Podcast. I’m Ricardo Signes at Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy digital citizens everywhere. Here with me is my colleague, Haley Hnatuk. Haley, let them know who you are.

Haley Hnatuk: Hi, everyone. I’m Haley Hnatuk, Fastmail’s Senior Podcast Producer, Marketing Specialist, and the Co-host of Digital Citizen. We’re all here to learn how to become better digital citizens. For many of us, a great starting point is learning how to repair our own devices rather than replacing them for convenience. Today, we have the perfect person to help set us on the right path. Rik, who are you going to be talking to?

Ricardo Signes: Today, I’ll be talking to Aaron Perzanowski, who is a professor of law at the University of Michigan, where he teaches courses on intellectual property law, copyright, and trademarks.

Haley Hnatuk: Having a law expert on this episode will definitely come in handy because our Right to Repair has faced a few challenges lately. Isn’t that right, Rik?

Ricardo Signes: Yeah, exactly. The companies behind some of our most commonly used products aren’t making it easy to self-repair as we’d like. We’re going to be discussing the benefits of fixing our own devices and the reason why some companies create roadblocks to prevent the average consumer from doing so. So, stay tuned to dive into the Right to Repair. And then, at the end of the episode, I’ll give you some takeaways, things that you can actually do to become a better digital citizen. You can also find those on our website at fastmail.com/digitalcitizen.

Ricardo Signes: Aaron, could you tell me a little about who you are and what you do?

Aaron Perzanowski: Yeah, sure. I’m a professor of law at the University of Michigan. I teach courses primarily focusing on intellectual property law, copyright, trademark. My research really focuses on the intersection of intellectual property and personal property, the things that we all use every day, and how intellectual property kind of shapes our relationship with those devices and those products.

Ricardo Signes: And what is the Right to Repair, which we hear a lot about in the context of the stuff we own and our rights with it?

Aaron Perzanowski: The Right to Repair, I think, means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. What it boils down to is the notion that we as consumers have certain rights with respect to the things that we buy and the things that we own, and one of those rights is the right to fix them should something go wrong. If your car breaks down, if your refrigerator breaks, if you crack the screen on your smartphone, you should have the ability to either fix that product yourself or to make a choice about which professional you’re going to turn to, right? Maybe that’s the authorized repair provider, the car dealer, the Apple Store, or maybe it’s an independent shop down the street that you have a long-standing relationship with. And I think it’s important that consumers get to make that choice rather than having their flexibility constrained by the manufacturer’s preference for who repairs those products.

Ricardo Signes: What’s the function of repair? Does this have an interesting social function, or is it just a thing we do?

Aaron Perzanowski: Yeah, so I think the story we normally hear about repair, and I think it’s an important story, is one about economics. It’s much more expensive in many cases to replace a device than it is to repair it. We see the cost of repair skyrocketing over recent years, but there is, I think, a deeper historical, sociological story to tell about why repair is, is so important. And you’re absolutely right. The earliest human technology, the hand axe, right?

Ricardo Signes: Yep.

Aaron Perzanowski: That’s a technology that there’s archaeological evidence of people resharpening those tools over time, right. So, literally, the earliest piece of technology, we have evidence for, we have good reason to believe that was repaired, and that’s been true. As technology gets more sophisticated, more advanced, we see new and better techniques for repair, and sometimes that’s specialized, and sometimes that is the kind of every day repair that we’ve all encountered in our homes, right? Things that we all run into every day. Aaron Perzanowski: I think repair does something really important for us as people. It teaches us a set of skills. It teaches us how to analyze problems in the world, how to address them, how to be self-sufficient. There’s also a really communal aspect to repair. Repair is often something that takes place not in complete isolation but by asking neighbors for help.

Ricardo Signes: Right.

Aaron Perzanowski: Or today, going to YouTube and finding a community of people who have the same interests or the same product you do and learning from each other how to make those products work. And I think that’s really important. It boils down to a kind of sense of individual autonomy. Can you function in the world independently of manufacturers and sellers and retailers of these products, or can you and your friends or you and your neighbors manage to keep your hot water tank operating or manage to swap out a broken drive in your laptop? And so I think there’s a really broad range of kind of social and interpersonal skills that repair has historically helped us develop. And I think we’ve seen some of those muscles atrophy in the modern consumer economy.

Ricardo Signes: Is that, or to what extent is that a function of the complexity of the repair, right? I would definitely still call my brother-in-law if I had a problem with my hot water heater. He knows what he’s doing, and I don’t. If I have a problem with my network-attached storage, I might be out of luck. And as more things in our life get more complicated, is that a driving factor here, or is that a smokescreen?

Aaron Perzanowski: I think there’s some truth to that, right? The technology that we use today is absolutely more complicated. It has smaller components, tighter engineering tolerances than the things that we used 50 years ago, let alone 200 years ago. There’s absolutely an increase in that kind of technical complexity. Where I think the argument maybe goes too far is the conclusion that we sometimes take away from that, which is the only people we can trust to repair these things are the manufacturers themselves.

Ricardo Signes: Right.

Aaron Perzanowski: There are a lot of really incredibly skilled independent repair providers out in the world who frankly do more complicated and more difficult repairs than the authorized providers will do. So I think it’s really about finding a balance between turning to that expertise when it’s necessary but also creating space for people to try to do things on their own when they can. Oftentimes, I think we’re really scared of our technology.

Aaron Perzanowski: We think we’re going to do something to irreversibly damage it, and I think we might be better off if we were willing to take more chances and really get into the guts of these things and figure out how they’re put together. Companies that are in the business of selling hardware make more money when people replace their phones or replace their laptops-

Ricardo Signes: Sure.

Aaron Perzanowski: … than they do when they get repaired. The really obvious kind of decision point for people, “Am I going to buy a new one, or am I going to fix the one I already have?” And companies have strong incentives to steer you towards replacement. But I think companies, especially companies that are in the business of selling hardware, they’re designed to generate revenue, and this is the easiest path to doing that. So it doesn’t surprise me when we see that strategy.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah. You talked about the earliest signs of repair, and you mentioned somebody… a history of people, early people resharpening their stone axes, and maybe unhelpful thought in my head was, “Wait, that’s not repair, that’s maintenance.” But it keeps coming back in my head. Is there a difference between repair and maintenance?

Aaron Perzanowski: I think of maintenance as pre-repair, right? It’s addressing a problem before it develops, whereas repair forces you to take some steps after you’ve lost functionality. And so yeah, I totally take your point that a sharpening a blade is probably closer to maintenance than it is to repair, but maybe that depends on how dull the blade has gotten, right?

Ricardo Signes: Yeah. And then I just wonder about whether we, when we talk about the Right to Repair, we’re fighting for both. If you can’t perform maintenance, you’re going to have failure one would expect more rapidly, leading you into hitting lack of ability for repair.

Aaron Perzanowski: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the problems that comes up in the right-to-repair space is just the difficulty of getting your hands on diagnostic information-

Ricardo Signes: Right.

Aaron Perzanowski: … so that you can determine there’s even a problem that needs to be addressed in the first place. And so, these devices are often built in a way that kind of treats the owner or treats the user as like a kind of hostile party, right? You trying to keep you out of your own thing as if you are the kind of threat vector for some attack on this device. And I think it’s really important that people have information so that they can make smart choices about how they’re using their devices, about how they’re maintaining their devices, and ultimately how they’re going to repair them.

Ricardo Signes: Thinking about doing one’s own repair, I think the first case that, at least for me, brought the term Right to Repair in front of me, and that was all the discussion about John Deere tractors. Could you tell us just a little bit about what that story was?

Aaron Perzanowski: John Deere makes a whole bunch of really expensive agricultural equipment, right? You might see your neighbor riding around on a John Deere riding mower to cut their quarter-acre lawn, but they also make million-dollar pieces of machinery-

Ricardo Signes: Right.

Aaron Perzanowski: … right, that farmers use in the day-to-day work of agriculture. And there are a couple of issues that come up in this space, right? One is the time sensitivity of the repair. If my car breaks down, it’s annoying. It’s a bummer. I might have to bike to work. I might have to walk to work. I might have to catch a bus, but if it gets fixed in a week or two, I’m fine. If you’re a farmer and a critical piece of equipment goes down at the wrong time of the year, that could cause a set of like cascading problems that essentially you lose the season, right?

Ricardo Signes: Right.

Aaron Perzanowski: You’ve been preparing the land, you’ve been planting, you’ve been tending to your crops, and then it comes time to harvest, and your equipment breaks down, right? So you need fast repairs. The challenge that comes up for farmers in this space is John Deere has engineered their tractors and other equipment in a way that often makes it really impossible for a farmer to repair that equipment on their own or to even turn to an independent tractor repair provider.

Aaron Perzanowski: So one of the things they do is, like any modern vehicle, there’s software everywhere in these tractors, right. And this software can basically detect when a component part has been replaced on the tractor, and it won’t initialize that replacement part until it gets a special file, what Deere calls a payload file that’s been downloaded to the tractor, and the only people that can do that are John Deere’s authorized dealers. And so if you fix it yourself and you do everything right, you buy the right part, you install it correctly, you go to turn your tractor on, it’s not going to work until you pay John Deere to send their technician out to your farm, connect it to their laptop, press a couple of buttons, and basically give their blessing to the repair. And that adds significant cost.

Ricardo Signes: Right.

Aaron Perzanowski: It also adds time. John Deere dealers have been concentrated in a really aggressive way over the last 20 years. They’ve gotten rid of a lot of the small independent owners of those dealerships, and so now that means the dealer might be farther away from you, and it could take days, weeks before you see that repair finalized. And so farmers are really frustrated by the fact that they basically have to have John Deere send somebody out to their farm even though the repair has already been completed.

Aaron Perzanowski: So part of the story here is the kind of ubiquity of software in the world we live in today, right? It’s not just in your tractor, in your car. It’s not just in your smartphone or your entertainment devices. It’s in your kitchen appliances, your refrigerator, your dishwasher. We all live in this world now of smart devices, and as soon as you introduce software into a product, that gives the manufacturer the opportunity, right, not to say that every manufacturer is taking this opportunity, but it gives them the opportunity to exert some control over how the product is being used after the fact.

Ricardo Signes: All these things, the gadgets, my phone, the tablet, the tractor itself, when they’re built, they all have an expected service lifetime, right? When they’re built, there’s an expectation of how long it should last. As things reach what the expected lifetime is, it can’t be extended. Again, maybe this is a philosophical question other than a practical one, but it seems practical to me.

Aaron Perzanowski: There’s a sort of soft kind of obsolescence, which is the new phone comes out, and it’s in a different color, and there’s this cool ad, and everybody’s talking about it online, and the phone that yesterday you were totally happy with, today you look at, and you’re less enamored, right, with that product. And so, putting aside whether expected lifespans in terms of functionality or growing or shrinking, as consumers, we often never reach that point, right? We replace perfectly good devices. I generally end up leasing cars rather than buying cars. Why? I don’t know, because like, after three years, I’m sick of it and I want to drive something new. Now, I’m not tossing the old car in a dumpster or driving it into the lake, right? Somebody else is going to drive that car and get value out of it. And vehicles actually are one area where over the last 15 years or so, we have seen increasing lifespans. The average age of the vehicle on the road in the United States is longer now than it ever has been, and it keeps getting longer. And so I say good for the car companies, right. They’re doing something right. They’re making durable, like, long-lasting products. Then, we have examples where companies are explicitly deciding at the design stage to shorten the lifespan of their product. Home printers of some brands, right — Ricardo Signes: Will do.

Aaron Perzanowski: But I think it was Epson. They have programmed into their printers a fixed number of pages, and when it hits that number of pages, it just stops working, right? And asked for an explanation, they said, “When you print, there’s always a little bit of excess ink, and that excess ink we collect in this little sponge at the bottom of your printer, and we calculated how long it takes until that sponge gets saturated with ink and then we decide to kill your printer, right.” It’s a sponge that you can buy online. I went, I found the part, and you could swap this thing out. But instead, they decide, “Well, let’s just kill the printer. They got their money’s worth, and now we’ll have them go back to the store and buy another one, right.” That’s the kind of really explicit planned obsolescence that I think people worry about, and it seems like a conspiracy theory a little bit when you talk about it, but in fact, it happens.

Ricardo Signes: If I don’t know that I can replace the sponge, it’s going to cost me $100 to replace the printer. But it feels like that problem writ large, right, across some very large number of printers sold in the world and other technology, and all the people who have not heard you tell them this problem exists is going to have a bunch of other costs. And I’m not really sure what those are going to be, but I bet you can tell me some of them.

Aaron Perzanowski: The one that immediately I think comes to mind and, in some ways, to my mind is the most important are the environmental externalities here.

Ricardo Signes: Right.

Aaron Perzanowski: We’ve got all those printers going bad. Unlike my three-year-old car that I don’t want to drive anymore, there’s nobody lining up to buy the printer that doesn’t print, right. So what happens to it? In most cases, especially in the United States, it ends up in the trash. It is difficult to recycle electronics in this country. We don’t have the kind of infrastructure to make it easy. Other places do a better job. Europe has a much more kind of developed system for recycling consumer electronics and other goods. Here in the US, it’s going to go in a dumpster. It’s going to go in a landfill, and that has a lot of really troubling implications environmentally and, ultimately, in terms of human health, right? There’s all kinds of heavy metals in these products.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah.

Aaron Perzanowski: They leach into groundwater. They pollute our land. The other thing, as I mentioned before, is the expense here really adds up, especially for families that don’t have a lot of resources that don’t a lot of wealth. There are other people that need this technology, and if you tell them they got to go buy a new printer or a new smartphone this month, they’re going to have to make some really tough choices about what bills get paid and which ones don’t. And given the fact that we live in a culture where there’s this kind of increasing expectation of access to digital technology in particular, I think that’s a real problem. I think it’s important to think about how this plays out through an economic lens that is not the one that I live every day.

Ricardo Signes: Right. I have teachers in my family who I spoke to, and it was very clear the impact of access to this technology was enormous and for several years at a time. So what else can consumers do to fight the way this problem is having societal and personal effects on us?

Aaron Perzanowski: There are things that we can do as individuals. This is not one of those problems that you solve through, “I’m going to be better about recycling, and I’m going to sort my glass.” Good recycle. I’m all for it. I’m not telling you not to, but that’s not fixing the problem when the problem is. like, global in scale.

Aaron Perzanowski: So I try to be mindful as a consumer about what I buy, about how long things last, about not indulging every impulse for a new shiny object. I am the killjoy who every time there’s a new iPhone release and people are like, “Oh, I can’t wait to get the iPhone.” My reaction is, “Does your phone work? It works. You don’t need a new phone.”

Ricardo Signes: Right.

Aaron Perzanowski: Right. “I’m sure the camera’s great. I’m sure it’s got cool stuff, but if you have a functioning device, keep it, right.” And I think that’s true for a whole range of products. So pushing back on that kind of idea of sort of disposable consumerism that our job is just to buy and buy and buy in an endless cycle. If something breaks, explore repair as an option. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense, right. There are products out there, washing machines, refrigerators, where because these markets are so dysfunctional, it costs more to repair something than it does to replace it. I get it, right?

Aaron Perzanowski: So being more mindful at the repair stage. France, for the last couple of years, has had a new law in place that requires these standardized repairability scores for a whole range of products, kitchen appliances, smartphones, other kinds of things, where the product advertisements and packaging will tell you right there where it scores on a one to 10 scale. We don’t have something like that in the US at this point, but we do have iFixit. iFixit has been giving repairability scores on their website for a long time now. They do these really detailed tear-downs. They figure out, “Okay, how easy is this thing to fix? How easy is it to take apart? How easy is it to reassemble?” And that’s something I look at before I buy a product and if the score is really low, that’s going to steer me in another direction. The average citizen in supporting that kind of legislation, I think, has been really helpful. When you get a bunch of people complaining to their state senator that they can’t fix their phone or they can’t fix their refrigerator, I think that’s paid off. And so we’ve had some bills pass in recent years that are making improvements in this space. So I think that’s encouraging.

Ricardo Signes: So let me ask you a little bit more about the regulatory work and the legal issues you’ve talked about. First off, what is it that got you interested in this topic legally or otherwise?

Aaron Perzanowski: So my work for a long time has been focused on how intellectual property influences the relationships that people have with the things that they own. So I started thinking about these issues with my co-author, Jason Schultz. We wrote a bunch of Law Review articles, and we wrote a book called “The End of Ownership” that focused on… And that book’s almost 10 years old at this point. So we were talking about ownership of digital media. What does it mean to buy a movie from a digital store when it can disappear without notice? What does it mean to own a software-enabled device where software updates can take away functionality?

Aaron Perzanowski: So we cared a lot about that stuff. We wrote about that stuff for a long time, and it was a pretty natural segue to thinking about the Right to Repair. We talked a little bit in that book about the Right to Repair, but it wasn’t our main focus. And then, you know, as I kept paying attention to these issues and saw the sort of momentum that was building around this issue, I thought it made sense to spend some time focusing on it and really unpacking the legal complexities that were going on in this space because it’s not just an intellectual property issue. It’s an antitrust issue, right? It’s about competition and concentration. It’s a consumer protection issue.

Aaron Perzanowski: Are we making sure that consumers have adequate information in the marketplace? And so I spent most of the pandemic writing another book on The Right to Repair that’s been out for, I don’t know, about a year and a half now, and that just pulled me in even further. And so now I’m not actively writing about this topic anymore. I have other things on my plate in terms of research, but I’ve tried to remain engaged on the kind of advocacy side of this issue because it is something that I really believe in and think is really important.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah. And you’ve laid out a bunch of the arguments for folks to have the ability to fix their stuff or have it fixed and said there’s broad support for this on both sides of the aisle in the states and presumably in many other places. What is it that your advocacy has to push against? Is it just inertia? Is it money? What’s the motivation people need to take action beyond hearing about it?

Aaron Perzanowski: I do think inertia is a big part of this, right? No matter how good your idea might be, getting laws passed in this country is not an easy thing to do. It’s hard even when they are aren’t forces that are aligned against that idea. I think the momentum has really shifted over the last couple of years. There are a lot of really incredibly dedicated, hardworking, super smart people that have been working on this issue basically full-time, right?

Aaron Perzanowski: I’m the kind of, like, academic legal expert who comes in and answers a few questions, but there are people who are doing on-the-ground organizing and lobbying day after day and have lost the battle three times in a state, and now they’re going to prevail, right? California’s a good example of this. There’s been Right to Repair legislation introduced in California, and this time, it’s been passed by both houses of the legislature in California, waiting on a signature from Governor Newsom. And I don’t have any inside information here, but I would be surprised if he doesn’t sign this bill. That is the result of just relentless on-the-ground organizing efforts year after year.

Ricardo Signes: Earlier, you mentioned the French requirement for fixability scores. What are the other requirements or the other legal changes that people are looking for in the States or elsewhere? What are the actual laws that look like to address this problem?

Aaron Perzanowski: So the model that has been successful so far in the United States on the state level basically imposes requirements on manufacturers to make available to device owners or to independent repair shops replacement parts, software tools, and repair information that are necessary to complete a repair. The manufacturer can’t simply refuse to sell replacement parts as many have done in the past. They can’t simply say, “We’ve got a diagnostic process that allows you to figure out what this problem is, and we have a step-by-step repair process, but that information is only for our authorized people. You don’t get access to it.” They have to make it available to basically owners of devices and independent repair shops at fair and reasonable terms. They don’t have to give it away for free.

Ricardo Signes: Right.

Aaron Perzanowski: If the part costs 50 bucks to make, you can charge that cost and pass that on to the consumer or to the repair shop. And that’s a model that has worked really well for a long time. It’s based off of a law in Massachusetts that got passed back in 2011 or 2012 that really opened up automotive repair markets, right? So you were starting to see in that era, car companies use a lot of these same strategies, and that’s why automotive repair remains reasonably competitive and robust —

Ricardo Signes: Right.

Aaron Perzanowski: … whereas these other markets, you don’t have that same level of competition.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah. The biggest bit of news has been the discussion of Apple reversing course on support for our right-to-repair law. Everything I saw written about it made it seem like it was shocking and massive, but I don’t have enough context to interpret that. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was all about?

Aaron Perzanowski: Apple, for a long time, has been the poster child of opposition to the Right to Repair. Apple refused to sell replacement parts to anybody that wasn’t an Apple-authorized repair provider. They wouldn’t sell them to device owners. They wouldn’t sell them to independent repair shops. Apple continues to use some software-based techniques that make repair difficult. One of the ones that I think is most troubling is this notion of parts pairing. So if you take two identical Apple iPhone 15s, take the screen off of each one, and try to swap them, they won’t work.

Aaron Perzanowski: The device is smart enough to know the specific serial number of the screen that was assigned to that device in the factory. They’re essentially undoing the notion of interchangeable parts, which I find, like, really troubling. So they’re still doing things like that. And so they earned a reputation as being a pretty anti-repair company. The change in their policy has been a kind of slow, incremental one. First, they announced this independent repair program, which was a kind of fig leaf to make it seem like they cared about this issue. It was… The program was trash. It was, like, awful. And then we’ve seen them simultaneously start to soften on the legislative proposals that are out there.

Aaron Perzanowski: They went from all-out assaults saying crazy stuff. I think there was a bill that was pending, maybe it was in Oklahoma, four or five years ago, and Apple showed up and said, “If you allow this, you’re going to turn your state into a Mecca for hackers. All the hackers are going to show up and take advantage of your state’s lax laws.” Then, they became quiet and neutral and didn’t say anything publicly and didn’t have too much to say privately. And now, most recently in California, they have actually backed the Repair Bill that’s up for the governor’s signature. I’m not comfortable speculating on exactly what their motivation is.

Ricardo Signes: Right.

Aaron Perzanowski: If I were in their position, there are a couple of things that I would be thinking. One is, “We’re losing this fight. We will continue to lose this fight because of the momentum this issue has. And rather than being the villain, why don’t we get on the right side of this issue and stop taking the PR hit every time one of these bills passes?”

Ricardo Signes: Right.

Aaron Perzanowski: Right. I would bet that the iPhone is closer to the end of its life cycle as a product than the beginning of its life cycle as a product.

Ricardo Signes: Okay.

Aaron Perzanowski: And why keep fighting about the repair of a particular device when you’re ready to move on to new hardware or you’re ready to move on to new business models that are based on subscriptions and the like? And so I think it might be less of an immediate fiscal imperative for them, but, again, that’s all speculation. I am happy to see them making these moves, and I look forward to having to eat my words every time I talk about this issue because I’ve painted Apple as the villain conveniently. Every story needs a villain, and they’ve been a really useful one, I think.

Ricardo Signes: I’m sure. It sounds like you’ll be able to find a new one, so I wish you luck. In your work teaching, do you find your students are a good audience for this topic? Is this something you talk to them about?

Aaron Perzanowski: I taught a seminar last winter on the Right to Repair at the University of Michigan Law School, and I had a wonderful time with these students. They were really engaged on this issue. They were bummed out most of the time. Like, they kept coming in and being like, “When is this story going to get less depressing?” And I was like, “It’s not.”

Ricardo Signes: “When you go out into the world and fix it.”

Aaron Perzanowski: Right. “Not right… Not in this room. We’re not fixing the problem in here. We are diving into, you know, just how bad it is.” Some of them, I think, saw the kind of economics as really crucial and related to their lived experience growing up. And it’s really useful when you can take a set of problems that, from the kind of lawyer’s perspective, are all about here’s this case or here’s this statute and here’s the kind of technical fixes and make it something that really has human stakes and human consequences. And that’s the piece of it that I think was the most rewarding for me as they were able to get out of lawyer brain mode and think about this as a social problem.

Ricardo Signes: Right. You’ve also written a book about The Right to Repair. Is this a book for law students is a book for everybody who wants to read this?

Aaron Perzanowski: This is a book written for anybody who cares about this issue. You don’t need to have any prior training or background in intellectual property law, in law whatsoever. It is meant to be read by anybody that cares about the issue.

Ricardo Signes: And also, you’re on the board of the Repair Association. Can you tell us what they do?

Aaron Perzanowski: The Repair Association is one of the key organizations involved in this right-to-repair fight in terms of legislation around the country. It’s a membership organization for companies that do repair, and they represent the interests of these independent repair providers around the country who are, oftentimes, small local businesses, and they just want to be able to compete.

Aaron Perzanowski: And the Repair Association has been instrumental in putting together the model legislation that’s been the basis for these bills that we’ve seen passing in a number of states over the last couple of years. And they’ve acted as a really important clearinghouse for information around these issues. A bunch of really smart, dedicated folks that I think have made a difference, and I’m just happy to be able to make a small contribution to the work that they’re doing.

Ricardo Signes: Thanks. That’s interesting. I have one last thing. On this podcast, we are concerned with issues of digital citizenship. How do you behave in a way that’s responsible to yourself and to other people when you engage with the internet and there are technology and everything else? Could you give our listeners a piece or two of advice on practical steps they could take to be better digital citizens?

Aaron Perzanowski: I really believe that understanding how your technology works, not necessarily at a deep technical level but understanding it in a kind of practical sense, I think understanding that stuff is actually really important to the kinds of problems that we all hope our government is going to be addressing, right? And if you don’t understand it yourself, how can you weigh in on whether AI regulation is a good idea, or how can you weigh in on facial recognition regulations or whatever the issue of the day might be? And I think that repair actually helps people understand their technology a little bit better, right?

Aaron Perzanowski: There’s nothing that reveals the limits of your understanding more than when something breaks, and you’re like, “I don’t even know what to do,” right? And so I really think that there is a sense in which engaging in repair does have this potential to make us better citizens because it means we are more engaged with these technological mechanisms. And if you are just a passive user of that technology, I think you are in a weaker position and more likely to find yourself the victim of some kind of manipulation rather than somebody that gets what’s happening on a deeper level.

Ricardo Signes: And if I want to learn how to repair my stuff, what’s the first practical step I could take?

Aaron Perzanowski: I mentioned iFixit before. They’ve got this incredible collection of repair guides that some of them are made by their own employees. A lot of them are made just by users of the website. You go to YouTube, and there are people on YouTube that are showing you how to repair all sorts of stuff. There’s this guy, Louis Rossmann, who is super entertaining to watch. He’s a real personality. But a whole bunch of other folks that are showing you how to fix all sorts of products. And so if you look around, this information is available. You just got to try to make use of it. And accept the fact that you might make the problem worse the first couple of times you try to fix it. That’s part of the process, too. I think you got to get over that and just dive in.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah. Personally, I absolutely agree. I have turned to YouTube many times in the past few years, and it’s been extremely satisfying to fix something with a $2 part instead of a $200 professional visit.

Aaron Perzanowski: Absolutely.

Ricardo Signes: All right, that’s all I got for you. Thank you very much for being with us today. Appreciate your time.

Ricardo Signes: Well, I hope you learned something new about your Right to Repair and the new legislation in place to help remove some of the roadblocks that made it harder for us to fix our own products or to take them to third-party vendors.

Haley Hnatuk: I definitely learned a lot, and I love that Aaron was able to shed light on the incentives manufacturers have in preventing consumers from self-repairing. What do you think the key takeaways were, Rik?

Ricardo Signes: Well, I think we should practice our Right to Repair as much as we can because the global impact of constantly replacing perfectly good products can be intense. And if you feel like a manufacturer is infringing on your Right to Repair, there are ways to get in touch with your local representatives to eventually put laws into place that will restore your rights. It’s not often that we take the time to learn the mechanics of our phones or cars or kitchen appliances, but staying curious and trusting our abilities are key steps in becoming a better digital citizen.

Haley Hnatuk: Well, we hope you can take these actionable steps towards being a better digital citizen.

Ricardo Signes: And we’ll see you in two weeks for a conversation about another new and exciting topic.

Ricardo Signes: Thanks for listening to Digital Citizen. Digital Citizen is produced by Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy digital citizens everywhere. Our show is produced by Haley Hnatuk. Special thanks to the incredible team of people behind Fastmail. Digital Citizen is hosted by me, Ricardo Signes. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast player, and for a free one-month trial of Fastmail, you can go to fastmail.com/podcast. And for more episodes, transcripts, and my takeaways, you can go to digitalcitizenshow.com.

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