Our Right To Repair Depends On A Minimally Viable Laptop

It’s never been harder to repair your electronics. When the keyboard in your shiny new MacBook dies, you’ll have to send it to a Genius. When the battery in your iPhone dies, you’ll have to break out the pentalobe screwdrivers. Your technology does not respect your freedom, and this is true all the way down to the source code: the Library of Congress is thankfully chipping away at the DMCA in an effort that serves the Right to Repair movement, but still problems remain.

The ability — or rather, right — to repair will inevitably mean using electronics longer, and keeping them out of the garbage. That’s less e-waste, but it’s also older, potentially slower and less powerful portable workstations. This is the question: how long should you keep your electronics running? When do you start getting into the false economy of repairing something just because you can? What is the minimally viable laptop?

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DMCA Review: Big Win for Right to Repair, Zero for Right to Tinker

This year’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) triennial review (PDF, legalese) contained some great news. Particularly, breaking encryption in a product in order to repair it has been deemed legal, and a previous exemption for reverse engineering 3D printer firmware to use the filament of your choice has been broadened. The infosec community got some clarification on penetration testing, and video game librarians and archivists came away with a big win on server software for online games.

Moreover, the process to renew a previous exemption has been streamlined — one used to be required to reapply from scratch every three years and now an exemption will stand unless circumstances have changed significantly. These changes, along with recent rulings by the Supreme Court are signs that some of the worst excesses of the DMCA’s anti-circumvention clause are being walked back, twenty years after being enacted. We have to applaud these developments.

However, the new right to repair clause seems to be restricted to restoring the device in question to its original specifications; if you’d like to hack a new feature into something that you own, you’re still out of luck. And while this review was generally favorable of opening up technology to enable fair use, they didn’t approve Bunnie Huang’s petition to allow decryption of the encryption method used over HDMI cables, so building your own HDMI devices that display encrypted streams is still out. And the changes to the 3D printer filament exemption is a reminder of the patchwork nature of this whole affair: it still only applies to 3D printer filament and not other devices that attempt to enforce the use of proprietary feedstock. Wait, what?

Finally, the Library of Congress only has authority to decide which acts of reverse engineering constitute defeating anti-circumvention measures. This review does not address the tools and information necessary to do so. “Manufacture and provision of — or trafficking in — products and services designed for the purposes of circumvention…” are covered elsewhere in the code. So while you are now allowed decrypt your John Deere software to fix your tractor, it’s not yet clear that designing and selling an ECU-unlocking tool, or even e-mailing someone the decryption key, is legal.

Could we hope for more? Sure! But making laws in a country as large as the US is a balancing act among many different interests, and the Library of Congress’s ruling is laudably clear about how they reached their decisions. The ruling itself is worth a read if you want to dive in, but be prepared to be overwhelmed in apparent minutiae. Or save yourself a little time and read on — we’ve got the highlights from a hacker’s perspective.

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A Bit Of Mainstream Coverage For The Right To Repair

Here at Hackaday, we write for a community of readers who are inquisitive about the technology surrounding them. You wouldn’t be here if you had never taken a screwdriver to a piece of equipment to see what makes it work. We know that as well as delving inside and modifying devices being core to the hardware hacker mindset, so is repairing. If something we own breaks, we try to work out why it broke, and what we can do to fix it.

Unfortunately, we live in an age in which fixing the things we own is becoming ever harder. Manufacturers either want to sell us now hardware rather than see us repair what breaks, or wish to exercise total control over the maintenance of their products. They make them physically impossible to repair, for example by gluing together a cellphone, or they lock down easy-to-repair items with restrictive software, for example tractors upon which every replacement part must be logged on a central computer.

This has been a huge issue in our community for a long time now, but to the Man In The Street it barely matters. To the people who matter, those who could change or influence the situation, it’s not even on the radar. Which makes a piece in the British high-end weekly newspaper The Economist particularly interesting. Entitled “A ‘right to repair’ movement tools up“, it lays out the issues and introduces the Repair Association, a political lobby group that campaigns for “Right to repair” laws in the individual states of the USA.

You might now be asking why this is important, why are we telling you something you already know? The answer lies in the publication in which it appears. The Economist is aimed at politicians and influencers worldwide. In other words, when we here at Hackaday talk about the right to repair, we’re preaching to the choir. When they do it at the Economist, they’re preaching to the crowd who can make a difference. And that’s important.

You may recognise the tractors mentioned earlier as the iconic green-and-yellow John Deere. We’ve written about their DRM before.

Neon sign, All Electronics Service, Portland, Visitor7 [CC BY-SA 3.0].