Apple physically makes its products hard to repair in a wide array of ways, and this week may have brought proof that Apple is also fighting to keep pesky laws from challenging the status quo. It seems an Apple lobbyist has quietly managed to get California to postpone its right-to-repair bill until 2020 at the earliest, partly by stoking fears of exploding batteries should consumers attempt to repair their iPhones.
As Motherboard first reported yesterday and The Verge’s sources can corroborate, a lobbyist who works directly for Apple recently met with members of the California state Assembly’s Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee, which was considering the bill. The lobbyist argued that consumers might hurt themselves if they accidentally puncture the flammable lithium-ion batteries in their phones, which could happen in the course of the easier repairs this bill was designed to enable.
“It became clear that the bill would not have the support it needed today.”
In response to the pressure, the bill’s co-sponsor pulled it from the committee on Tuesday, saying it might be considered again in January 2020. “While this was not an easy decision, it became clear that the bill would not have the support it needed today, and manufacturers had sown enough doubt with vague and unbacked claims of privacy and security concerns,” said California Assembly member Susan Talamantes Eggman, who first introduced the bill in March 2018 and again in March 2019.
Apple sold $31 billion worth of iPhones last quarter alone, and that’s a quarter when iPhone sales slowed, so the company has a strong interest in making sure you keep buying new handsets instead of repairing them or replacing the batteries. Last year, when as many as 11 million customers may had not needed to buy a new iPhone because of discounted battery replacements, Apple admitted that those $29 batteries were one of the reasons for declining sales.
Traditionally, we haven’t seen much proof that manufacturers like Apple have directly attempted to influence lawmakers, as opposed to voicing their desires through larger, generic industry advocacy groups like CompTIA — until today.
According to sources in the California state Assembly who spoke to The Verge, committee members met with Apple lobbyist Rod Diridon, who’s listed as Apple’s senior manager of “State and Local Government Affairs — West.” He’s also listed as an Apple lobbyist at CompTIA’s website, and he appears to be the same Rod Diridon Jr. who abruptly left his role as the city clerk for Santa Clara, California last year, a town whose border runs along the edge of Apple’s new “spaceship” Apple Park headquarters.
Fire risk wasn’t Apple’s whole pitch
One staffer in the California state Assembly tells The Verge that Diridon didn’t necessarily focus on the fire risk, and that he outright admitted a lot would have to go wrong with a repair before a battery would necessarily catch fire. Other topics included the difficulty of opening the phone and the risk of breaking the screen.
But one might point out that if Apple wanted to make the phones safer to repair, it could arrange to make that process less difficult. Apple declined to comment for this story, but the sales pitch in the company’s 2019 Environmental Responsibility Report makes it pretty clear the company would much rather you pay Apple to repair your phone for a variety of reasons:
To make sure that repairs are performed safely, securely, and to the highest quality, we continuously train and certify service channel personnel, with over 265,000 active trained personnel. Our providers perform diagnostics and calibrations to target repairs precisely, avoiding unnecessary service and replacements of parts. When new parts are needed, only genuine Apple parts are used, so repaired devices work exactly the way they should. And all Apple-certified repairs are backed by Apple.
I wasn’t able to reach Apple’s Diridon to confirm that’s the thinking, but I did reach two of his opponents — iFixit co-founder Kyle Wiens and US PIRG right-to-repair campaign director Nathan Proctor, who were also at the state capital yesterday lobbying the committee to push the bill through.
When I ask iFixit co-founder Kyle Wiens about the likelihood of puncturing an iPhone battery during a repair, he laughs — even while admitting it’s possible. (Here’s one recent example from WSJ tech reviewer David Pierce.) The problem, Wiens explains, is that it rarely happens in the real world.
Lithium-ion batteries do catch fire when punctured
“Millions of people have done iPhone repairs using iFixit guides, and people overwhelmingly repair these phones successfully,” says Wiens. “The only people I’ve seen hurt themselves with an iPhone are those with a cracked screen, cutting their finger.”
Plus, it’s just as easy — perhaps easier — to badly hurt yourself fixing things where it’s widely accepted that people will repair them on their own. Whether it uses gasoline or a lithium-ion battery, most every car has a flammable liquid inside. You can also get badly hurt if you’re changing a tire and your car rolls off the jack, Wiens points out.
“We live in a world where that risk is being managed constantly; we don’t need to invent an arbitrary barrier to the repair of the stuff we own,” says Proctor.
Repairing products should be preferable to wasting them, Proctor adds. He points out an EPA statistic from 2009 about how 141 million cellphones are discarded a year, of which only 8 percent were recycled. (Apple recently stepped up its iPhone recycling program, but has only collected nearly 1 million devices to date.)
Proctor says that it looked like right-to-repair was set to have the support it needed this year in California, until just the last couple of weeks when Apple and others stepped up. “As you get close to the hearing date, there’s a big push, a big surge of opposition lobbying, saying things that are pretty scary to legislators like ‘fire risk.’ They don’t want us to have time to follow up,” he says.
And it was that last-minute push, The Verge understands, that convinced the bill’s sponsor she needed to address these new fears before risking a possible “no” vote on right-to-repair.
Here’s the rest of the statement from Assembly member Eggman, the bill’s sponsor:
I feel that we are on the right side of this issue, and that ultimately the bill will prevail. Unfortunately, presenting it today would not advance the issue because it would jeopardize our opportunity to continue working on the bill next year. I will be working with members of the committee in the coming months to secure the support needed to make the Right to Repair a reality in California.
Now, California will have to wait another year — until January 2020 — to see if the political will can be mustered.