[Plura-list] Monopolists are winning the repair wars

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Wed May 26 12:54:13 EDT 2021

Today's links

* Monopolists are winning the repair wars: Again.

* This day in history: 2006, 2011, 2016, 2020

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current
writing projects, current reading


👨🏾‍🦳 Monopolists are winning the repair wars

In 2018, dozens of states introduced Right to Repair bills. These bills
are wildly popular among voters, but wildly unpopular among monopolists
ranging from Apple to Microsoft to Google to GM to John Deere to Wahl.
Every one of these bills was defeated.

Repair advocates regrouped for 2021. 27 R2R bills have been introduced
at the state level. Every single one that came up for a vote was
defeated, thanks to aggressive lobbying by an unholy alliance of the
country's largest, most profitable, least taxpaying corporations.

In 2014, a pair of American political scientists published a
groundbreaking peer-reviewed paper analyzing 30 years' worth of US
policy-making that compared policy outcomes to public polling results.


They concluded that *general* public sentiment had almost *no* impact on
US policy making - but the political preferences of wealthy people and
large corporations were hugely predictive of what laws and regulations
we'd get.

Or, in poli-sci jargon, "Economic elites and organized groups
representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on
U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest
groups have little or no independent influence."

The Right to Repair fight is a hell of a proof of this principle. It's
really hard to overstate the popularity of the idea that you should be
able to fix your own stuff, or choose where you get your stuff fixed.

Take auto-repair. As auto-manufacturing has grown more concentrated, car
makers have squeezed independent mechanics - as close to a folk-hero as
the American imagination can produce! - to the margins.

After all, forcing car owners to use official service depots has huge
advantages: manufacturers can gouge on service prices, they can force
drivers to buy expensive original parts, and they get to unilaterally
decide when a car is beyond repair and force you to buy a new one.

Drivers have a good intuitive sense that this is going on. That's why,
when Bay Staters voted on Massachusetts Question 1 (an automotive R2R
ballot initiative) in 2012, it passed with an 86% majority!

Mass Question 1 is a really good example of how monopolists can
arm-twist politicians into frustrating the will of the people.
Immediately after the 2012 initiative, auto-makers set about retooling
their cars to escape the new right to repair rule.

The 2012 rule forced automakers to give mechanics access to diagnostic
info from cars' wired internal networks, so Big Car moved all the useful
diagnostic data to their cars' *wireless* networks. Hence the 2020
Massachusetts R2R ballot initiative, which closed this loophole.

The 2020 fight over the Mass. R2R ballot initiative was fuckin' *wild*.
The car-makers ran some seriously freaky scare-ads, in which the ability
of auto mechanics to read wireless diagnostic data led directly to women
being stalked and *murdered*.


I'm not making this up. The underlying premise was, "We turned your car
into a hyper-aggressive mobile surveillance platform that incidentally
gets you places. If we let other people see the data we're
nonconsensually extracting from you, it will put you in terrible danger."

Thankfully, Bay Staters saw through this bullshit and passed 2020's
Question 1 with a 75% majority.

The thing is, people completely understand that they should be in charge
of deciding who fixes their stuff.

They understand that the risk of poor repairs should be addressed
through consumer protection laws (which also bind monopolists' own
authorized repair depots), not by having the repair market privately
regulated by monopolists who have vast conflicts of interest.

This understanding has only deepened through the pandemic year, as
authorized repair depots shuttered and vital equipment languished thanks
to anti-repair laws and technological countermeasures.

For example, Medtronic's workhorse PB840 ventilators couldn't be
refurbed without using a grey-market activation dongle that a single
Polish med-tech homebrewed, encasing them in cases harvested from busted
clock-radios and guitar pedals.


Medtronic - a med-tech monopolist that effected the largest corporate
inversion in history to escape US taxes - argues that letting
independent med-techs fix its products puts patients at risk, but this
argument is every bit as flimsy as the auto-makers' Mass. scare-ads.

It ignores three important facts:

I. Med-techs have *always* done this kind of repair. The change isn't
that med-techs are demanding the right to do something new - it's that
Medtronic leveraged its monopoly to foreclose on the industry-standard

II. Medtronic's own security track-record is comically terrible. This is
the company that makes pacemakers that can be wirelessly hacked from
across a room to kill its user, whose software update system doesn't
even use cryptographic signatures.

If Medtronic is an expert on any aspect of patient safety, that
expertise is certainly hard-won, derived from its long history of lethal
patient endangerment.

III. If there *is* a problem with indie technicians struggling to fix
Medtronic products, the obvious answer is to provide service manuals,
parts and diagnostic codes.

The case for Right to Repair is incredibly strong. Not only does R2R
protect consumers from ripoffs, it also provides local jobs - 1-4% of US
GDP comes from the independent repair sector, almost entirely in
independent small/medium businesses.


Repair is an important environmental, labor and human rights story. As
leaked internal memos demonstrate, Apple's aggressively landfilling of
devices (so customers buy more) is environmentally devastating and
creates demand for conflict minerals.


The average American family loses $330/year because of the lack of
access to independent repair, a $40b annual drag on the economy thanks
to monopoly rents collected by monopoly firms.

To say nothing of the impact on jobs: landfilling a kiloton of ewaste
creates <1 job; recycling that waste creates 15 jobs, while repairing it
creates *200* good, local jobs that can't be offshored (you don't send a
phone overseas for repair).


Then there's the food security story: John Deere is an agribusiness
monopolist that outraged farmers by claiming that they didn't own the
tractors they paid six figures for, merely "licensed" them on terms that
forbade them from fixing their own machines.

Deere leads Big Ag's anti-repair, forcing farmers to use official parts,
preventing modifications that would allow third-party attachments, and
collecting outrageous service call fees for a technician whose job is to
unlock the tractor after the farmer replaces a part.

This policy means that farmers who fix their own tractors still can't
use them even if there's a hail-storm coming and they need to bring in
the crop. Farmers - who've been fixing their own gear since the first
farmer built a forge next to their farmhouse - are desperate.

Some farmers download anonymously maintained Ukrainian firmware and
overwrite the Deere software, creating unknowable risk of remote attack.
Others have to maintain "backup tractors" they use for weeks while
waiting for Deere to fix their equipment.


Just like Medtronic and GM, Deere claims that allowing independent
service creates infosec risk - but just like its anti-repair comrades,
Deere's own infosec is a dumpster-fire, with tractors across America at
risk of mass-scale cyber-attacks:


The common thread joining these firms is monopoly: a lack of competition
that allows them to extract billions from the public, and a cozy cohort
of business leaders who can mobilize that loot to ensure that
politicians and regulators don't give the public what it demands.

American industry is experiencing a wave of monopolism not seen since
the Gilded Age, and it affects every sector. Take hair-clippers - a
category that exploded during the lockdown thanks to the newly created
need for home haircuts.

The clipper market is monopolized by a single firm, Wahl. As I
discovered - the hard way - Wahl has designed its newest clippers so
they disintegrate if you try to take them apart to sharpen them.


Instead of sharpening these devices, you're expected to buy a new $40
blade (for a shaver that costs $60 all in!), and throw out the old one -
or, less realistically, you can mail them your razor for factory sharpening.

You won't be surprised to learn that Wahl is part of the war on repair,
sending letters to state legislators warning that letting people sharpen
their own clipper blades could lead to fatal housefires.


Two years ago, the FTC convened an inquiry on independent repair called
"Nixing the Fix." The Nixing the Fix report was released earlier this
month, and it affirms everything that repair advocates have said all along.


The FTC calls bullshit on manufacturers' claims about cyber-risk,
housefires, and whether getting your car fixed by your family's beloved
mechanic will lead to your murder. It broadly and firmly endorses Right
to Repair.

Which brings me back to 2021, were every one of the 27 R2R bills that
has been brought before a state legislature for a vote has been
defeated, thanks to heavy corporate lobbying by monopolists.


These bills were voted down after heartbreaking testimony from ed-tech
repair specialists who described the devastating impact that a broken
laptop has on poor families whose kids are doing remote learning.

They were voted down despite the record, the public support, the climate
questions, the food security issue, the human rights issues - voted down
to preserve the monopoly profits of a tiny number of firms whose claim
to being "American" is tenuous at best.

These tax-dodging, offshoring companies view the American public as an
all-you-can-eat buffet, and disclaim any responsibility to the country -
while still expecting its lawmakers to defend their interests, at the
expense of the voters.


👨🏾‍🦳 This day in history

#15yrsago EFF scores win against Apple: bloggers’ sources are protected

#10yrsago More incompetence revealed on the part of France’s
“three-strikes” copyright enforcer

#10yrsago Gold-farming in a Chinese forced-labor camp

#10yrsago Canadian Tories refuse to send soldiers to help flood victims
because they’d compete with the private sector

#5yrsago How a pharma company made billions off mass murder by faking
the science on Oxycontin

#5yrsago “Pickup artist” douche uses copyright to sue Youtube critics,
fans raise $100K defense fund https://www.gofundme.com/f/h3h3defensefund

#5yrsago Jury hands Oracle its ass, says Google doesn’t owe it a penny
for Java

#5yrsago Revealed: the amazing cover for Walkaway, my first adult novel
since 2009

#1yrago White Americans are increasingly opposed to democracy

#1yrago Texas profiteers make bank from NYC's homeless


👨🏾‍🦳 Colophon

Today's top sources: Ryan Calo (https://twitter.com/rcalo).

Currently writing:

* Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests.
Yesterday's progress: 285 words (2428 words total).

* A short story about consumer data co-ops.  PLANNING

* A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation.  PLANNING

* A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written
with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown."  FINAL EDITS

* A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause."  FINISHED

* A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues."  FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (Part 06)

Upcoming appearances:

* In conversation with David Dayen (Second Life Book Club), Jun 4,

* Book launch for Terry Miles's Rabbits (Book Soup), Jun 7,

Recent appearances:

* How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism: Seize the Means of Computation

* Interoperability and Alternative Social Media

* Mohanraj and Rosenbaum Are Humans

Latest book:

* "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother novel, a standalone
technothriller for adults. The *Washington Post* called it "a political
cyberthriller, vigorous, bold and savvy about the limits of revolution
and resistance." Order signed, personalized copies from Dark Delicacies

* "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet
analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a
(print edition:
(signed copies:

* "Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new
introduction by Edward Snowden:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies

* "Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime,
gender, and kicking ass. Order here:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed
copy here:

Upcoming books:

* The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics,
Beacon Press 2022

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