Finance Consumer Consumer repair rights: Productivity Commission pushes to make fixing smartphones easier

Consumer repair rights: Productivity Commission pushes to make fixing smartphones easier

smartphone repair
A new PC report has identified some worrying trends about repairs. Photo: Getty
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You’ve probably noticed that the parts powering your smartphone have become less accessible in recent years, from memory cards to batteries.

Productivity Commission boss Paul Lindwall has noticed the change too.

“In my older [Samsung] models you could take the back off and change the battery, that seems to have gone,” Mr Lindwall told The New Daily.

“Manufacturers make the argument that it makes the product smaller and they can fit a bigger battery in … there’s always a trade off.”

The Productivity Commission (PC) has released a new report looking into trade- offs like this, their impact on consumers and the environment.

Barriers to repair

It has identified some worrying trends about our use of electronics, namely that independent repairers are finding it difficult to access the parts and information they need to help consumers reuse rather than recycle.

“There are growing concerns in Australia and overseas that repairs of consumer products are becoming progressively more difficult (sometimes impossible),” the PC said in a draft report, published Friday.

“Increasing product complexity means that consumers often have to rely on the manufacturer of the product (or their authorised repairer) to fix or maintain their product,” it said.

Although the PC has found little evidence manufacturers are shortening the lifespan of products deliberately, it did identify a series of “barriers” they are put up that make it more expensive for consumers to repair.

Evidence for how widespread the issues are is still “patchy” but the PC said there are some easy wins to improve repair rights, including:

  • Require additional text in warranties to inform consumers that consumer guarantees do not require authorised repair or spare parts
  • Ask the ACCC to publish guides on how long household products could reasonably be expected to last under consumer guarantees
  • Allowing consumer advocates to lodge “super complaints” with the ACCC to highlight common consumer issues to regulators.

A right to repair

Consumer advocates fear the PC hasn’t gone far enough.

That’s because it stopped short of recommending new laws to force giants like Apple and Samsung to provide third parties with spare parts.

This is an issue because these days smartphones come glued together rather than screwed, and it’s hard to access parts to repair them safely.

“We haven’t made any recommendations with respect to requiring manufacturers to provide spare parts,” Mr Lindwall said, contrary to earlier reports. 

Such a reform, which the PC canvassed in its report and will consider in a final publication in October, is needed to enshrine a “right of repair” in law, Mel Lake, a spokesperson for Bower reuse and repair centres, said.

“Right now it is often easier to replace an electronic household item than it is to repair it,” Ms Lake told The New Daily.

“Culturally speaking, it’s a negligible way of managing our belongings and sends terrible messages to our young people and the international community.”

This requirement to provide access to parts would ensure third parties would enforce a “positive obligation” on companies protecting repairs.

Dean Price, senior campaigner at CHOICE, said that is important to reduce e-waste and give consumers more options when their products break, rather than just buying a new phone or other electronic device.

But the PC has also suggested consumers are benefitting from lower prices of consumer electronics associated with manufacturers paying less for repairs.

In other words, there are trade-offs.

Gaps in repair rights

Mr Price said that under current laws there are obligations providing consumers some rights to repair, but it can often be unclear in practice.

“There are a number of gaps in the right to repair,” he told TND.

One of these emerging gaps is intellectual property; because products like fridges and cars now often have computers built into them, it can be difficult for repairers to access proprietary information to fix them.

Manufacturers have resisted providing this information more openly, but the PC agreed that copyright can impede access and suggesting that an exemption for repair could be written into intellectual property laws.

The government will respond to the PC’s final repair report before the end of October, including any positive obligation recommendations.

“As the Productivity Commission points out, the current evidence base on the magnitude of repair barriers is ‘patchy and largely anecdotal’,” Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar said in a statement on Friday.

“The Government encourages interested stakeholders to continue to engage with the Productivity Commission.”