How Monopolies Make Repair Harder

How Monopolies Make Repair Harder

Every week, we get a roundup of recent developments in Right to Repair news, courtesy of Jack Monahan and Paul Roberts from Fight to Repair, a reader-supported publication. Sign up to receive updates in your inbox. (It’s free!) Or become a premium subscriber for access to exclusive content and live events!

This week, businesses and activists alike called out major tech firms in an open letter. The complaint? Companies like Meta and Google are non-compliant with the European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA), a law set to go into effect in March of this year, which could put these internet giants on the hook for legal action and fines.

The intent of the DMA is to create fairer competition in the digital market by preventing large online platforms from abusing their market power. The DMA was announced back in 2020—which makes you think these companies would have enough time to adjust (sound familiar?).

The EU calls these companies capitalizing on non-competitive practices “gatekeepers” because of their ability to control markets, typically through some entry point into a market. Apple’s App Store is an example, where the company can control how users interact with app makers, influencing other businesses through their control of the platform. The power of platforms like the App Store is nothing new, and Apple has been facing backlash for its monopolistic behaviors.

iPhone 11 ready for a screen replacement
Sure, you can make an iPhone messaging app, but good luck integrating with iMessage.

Companies like Epic Games (the creators of Fortnite) and Beeper (a messaging service that would rid us of the dreaded green text bubble) have been taking Apple to task for using its App Store as a way to squeeze extra profits out of businesses and consumers alike. In the case of Epic Games, Apple wanted them to use its native App Store payment system so they could take a cut of the profits. Apple has been doing their best to make sure the Beeper platform doesn’t succeed by making integration with iMessage difficult or impossible. While their public stance is about privacy, there might be some other motives involved with squashing an iMessage competitor.

Connecting Monopolies and Right to Repair

You’re probably wondering, what does the App Store have to do with the right to repair? A lot, actually. Suppressing repair is all about stifling competition and concentrating market power in the hands of manufacturers. By denying customers access to schematic diagrams or diagnostic software, firms like Apple or John Deere not only ensure that their “authorized repair providers” vacuum up the bulk of the repair business and elbow out independent providers, then can also structure repair costs in ways that make it more economical to replace rather than repair devices and equipment.

In the case of the App Store, Apple wants to exclude competitors and thereby maximize its profits while convincing—no, requiring—users to stay within its ecosystem. Often called walled gardens or moats, exclusionary online marketplaces and ecosystems like the App Store or Amazon’s Marketplace keep customers from using non-approved services or apps. The arguments in favor often center on quality, privacy, and security—but the real motivator is money. Locking out competition for your marketplace ensures you, as the owner, can write the rules, name your price(s), and ensure the highest profits.

The main PCB of a McDonald's ice cream machine
Kytch interfaced with McDonald’s ice cream machines, and franchise owners loved it. But McDonald’s shut them down. Image from iFixit’s ice cream machine teardown.

Recently, high-profile legal cases have shone a light on the kind of rigged markets that are weighing down broad sectors of the economy. There’s the suit by the founders of Kytch, a startup that offered a device to McDonald’s franchise owners that made it easier for them to maintain and fix their McFlurry soft ice cream machines, made by the firm Taylor—piercing the machines’ opaque, complex and error-plagued software. According to documents released in that suit, it is alleged that Taylor and McDonald’s conspired to force franchise owners to reject the Kytch product.

Then there’s the class-action lawsuit filed by farmers against John Deere. Allegations in that case center on the company’s use of software locks and restrictions on access to diagnostic software and information to make owner and independent repair of Deere equipment impossible, concentrating market power in the hands of Deere’s network of highly consolidated independent dealerships.

In other words: the fight to repair and fight against monopoly power are intertwined. Ultimately, we won’t win one (the right to repair) without defeating the other (monopolies and extreme concentrations of market power). What can you do about it? Well, you can start by complaining to the FTC—a regulator that can do something about it and that’s in the process of weighing new rules that foster a right to repair.

More News

  • Expensive VR repairs: Apple’s virtual reality headset repairs won’t come cheap for a product that retails at $3499. Apple disclosed this week that a cracked cover will run $799, and AppleCare+ will cost users $499 for two years. With AppleCare+, repairs for accidental damages will cost $299 per incident.
  • Maine’s right to repair law faces a long road: Maine’s right-to-repair law is now in effect, but the significant changes required by the law may take time. Those changes include creating a database for advanced diagnostic repair data and establishing a state oversight board to ensure automakers’ compliance. Under the law, passed in November with 84% voter approval, automakers face a minimum $10,000 fine for not sharing repair data. But independent repair shop owners in Maine may not see a difference until 2025 when the oversight board is stood up.