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Did Google See the Light? Tech Giant Changes Tune on Right to Repair


Google has officially expressed its support for Right to Repair (R2R) legislation, specifically endorsing Oregon’s SB 542, led by State Senator Janeen Sollman (D). While Google’s endorsement may be driven more by a strategic response to the increasing likelihood of regulatory action rather than a newfound commitment to altruism, the company acknowledges the significance of the endorsement, echoing the sentiment that “a win’s a win” in sports.

The company articulated its updated stance on Right to Repair in a blog post and accompanying white paper released on Thursday. In the post, Google stated, “Today, we’re excited to reaffirm our support for the Right to Repair movement by releasing our first white paper on repair while endorsing proposed Oregon Right to Repair legislation that offers a compelling model for other states to follow.”

It’s noteworthy that Google had actively lobbied against Right to Repair legislation as recently as March 2021, opposing the HB21-1199 R2R bill in Colorado and going on record against AB1163 in California. The shift in Google’s stance had already been observed prior to this announcement, aligning with the evolving regulatory landscape. Notably, Google had initiated a partnership with iFixit for self-repairs starting in 2022. However, characterizing today’s announcement as a mere “reaffirmation” of a longstanding value, while disregarding documented evidence to the contrary, may be seen as disingenuous.

Google’s suggestions for regulators

The language employed by Google in its white paper indicates a strategic approach aimed at shaping legislation. Notably, a dedicated section titled “Policy Perspective” is devoted to dissecting the language and delineating the boundaries that, according to the company, should govern Right to Repair (R2R) regulations.

This policy section includes a notable passage addressing “design flexibility,” wherein Google urges legislators not to impose rigid design codes that could potentially restrict device manufacturers. The white paper emphasizes the company’s concern that well-intentioned regulations, aiming to enhance repairability, might inadvertently impede innovation and result in unintended consequences such as increased electronic waste. Google articulated its stance, stating, “Well-intentioned regulations that set specific design requirements and standards in an effort to improve repairability may have unintended consequences that inhibit innovation and inadvertently lead to bad outcomes, such as more e-waste.” The company advocates for repair-related policies that focus on defining desired repairability outcomes rather than enforcing strict design standards.

In another segment of the policy section, Google advocates for a “reasonable implementation period” in R2R regulations, emphasizing the need for measures that won’t disrupt existing manufacturing schedules. The company highlights the extended product development timelines inherent in consumer electronics, spanning multiple years. Google contends that any new regulatory measures should be phased in over a sensible timeline to allow manufacturers to adapt without facing undue burdens. Furthermore, the white paper suggests that regulations should not be applicable to products already designed and launched, as such retroactive measures may pose challenges and unintended consequences, including an increase in electronic waste.

While these requests may not appear overtly unreasonable, and the points about mitigating e-waste concerns could be viewed as valid, it is noteworthy that these proposals align conveniently with Google’s business interests. The coincidence raises questions about the company’s motivations, as the outlined policy preferences coincide with measures that could potentially benefit Google’s operations and industry standing.

An Apple dig and… Project Ara?

In a subtle jab at Apple, Google’s white paper underscores the need for policies that prevent Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) from enforcing unfair anti-repair practices. Specifically, the paper mentions “parts-pairing,” a practice in which software barriers are employed to obstruct consumers and independent repair shops from replacing components. The white paper advocates discouraging such practices and other restrictive impediments to repair.

This reference is particularly pertinent given Apple’s notoriety for parts-pairing. Apple has been known for digitally linking part serial numbers to the device serial, implementing mechanisms that lock out third-party repair services and issue incompatibility warnings to users who seek alternative repair solutions. Google’s inclusion of this point in the white paper subtly calls attention to practices within the industry, potentially highlighting a contrast with its competitor, Apple.

Project Ara, which made it to the Google graveyard before hitting store shelves, was shouted out in the white paper. (Google)

Google’s white paper accentuates instances from its history where it has supported Right to Repair (R2R) and similar initiatives. Notably, the paper references the (cancelled) Project Ara modular phone from a decade ago as an illustrative example of projects that “push the boundaries and better understand our users’ needs for repair,” even though it did not reach consumers.

Additionally, the paper highlights Google’s efforts in expanding its repair capabilities and emphasizes its commitment to providing seven years of software support for Pixel devices and hardware parts. While the motivations behind corporations’ support for R2R may be subject to skepticism, the paper positions these initiatives and commitments as a resounding victory for the R2R movement. It acknowledges that, despite potentially less-than-altruistic motives, the sustained efforts and advancements in repair support by companies like Google contribute positively to the broader objectives of the Right to Repair movement.

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