Europe is taking early steps to make the right-to-repair smartphones the law of the land. In 2018, the European Commission passed laws enshrining right-to-repair for appliances such as washing machines and refrigerators. Now, it’s set to move forward with similar legislation pertaining to smartphones. That’s if lobbyists and tech companies don’t kill the laws before they get off the ground.
On March 11, the European Commission—the European Union’s executive branch—will release its Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAC). The CEAC is like a rough draft of legislation related to creating a more sustainable environment.
Right-to-repair advocates in Europe want the EU to make smartphones part of its ecodesign directive, which would give the EU legal power to regulate the design and repairability of the devices. Two versions of the CEAC have leaked ahead of its March 11. One draft obtained by Motherboard says the commission will “explore ecodesign requirements...for [informations and communications technology] products that the ecodesign directive does not already cover, including mobile phones,” but does not mention the right-to-repair.
Another draft of the CEAC appears more explicit. It says the Commission will “focus on electronics and [information and communications technology] as a priority sector for implementing the ‘right to repair’, including the possibility of necessary upgrades,” and explore regulatory measures for mobile phones under the Ecodesign Directive.”
Right to repair advocates are hoping that Europe adopts the more explicit plan, which seemingly would clear the way for right to repair laws.
“Europe works in these long sweeping policy cycles,” Janet Gunter, co-founder of The Restart Project—a U.K. based group that teaches people how to repair electronics and lobbies for the right-to-repair—told Motherboard on the phone. “But generally speaking these policy pronouncements do set a line of travel, they do define what will happen next.”
In 2015, the European Commission carried out a study to determine which products should be included in eco-design directives. This was the study that determined washing machines and fridges should be easily repairable. According to Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, Product Policy and Circular Economy Officer for the European Environmental Bureau—a network of people and groups dedicated to fighting for environmental legislation in Europe, that same study concluded that smartphones were one of the most important products to make repairable and that laws around that should be prioritized.
“But, for whatever reason, [the European Commission] didn’t put smartphones onto the list of products which they were going to address in ,” Schweitzer told Motherboard over the phone. “At the time, different excuses were made. They felt that products like smartphones were innovating too quickly, that the policy cycle couldn’t keep up with it.”
Schweitzer said he and his fellow activists believe that the Commission didn’t push smartphones for political reasons. “They weren’t willing to take on the big tech companies,” he said. “What we want them to do is commit to putting smartphones on the eco design work plan. If it’s on the work plan, they have to go through the process and develop requirements for the phones.”
Both leaked copies of the CEAC drafts and we won’t know what the actual policy will be until March 11 when the EU unveils it. But Gunter and Schweitzer are cautious but optimistic. And even if the CEAC pushes for the right-to-repair smartphones, the fight isn’t over. It’s just starting. Gunter compared it to launching a Kickstarter. “Everyone gets super excited and they’re like ‘Oh my god, it’s so awesome.’ Unlike Kickstarter though, we don’t really get that many updates,” she said. “So last time there was a threat that the manufacturers would absolutely undermine all of the right to repair regulations. A draft circulated where they’d been completely eviscerated. Then, we mobilized.”
According to Gunter, there’s reason to be cautious. “Smartphones are a huge flashpoint. We’ve got huge lobbyists descending on Brussels trying to push against it,” she said. In January, the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted to adopt a standard charging cable for smartphones. After the vote, Apple released a statement saying it believed that such regulations would stifle innovation.
Schweitzer pointed to a recent study from the European Commission's Joint Research Centre—a group of scientists who provide the EU with scientific advice—which studied the ways the EU could design laws to improve the sustainability and repairability of smartphones. “It stresses the environmental benefits of prolonging the lifetime of phones,” he said. “But they also speak about a lot of caveats. Like if a phone is very waterproof, then you don’t need to be able to disassemble it.”
“It’s a question of whether [The European Commission] has the guts to stand up to Apple,” Gunter said. “This is a symbolic but potentially transformative moment in policy terms. But we’re not naive. We know we’re going to have to be there at every turn.”
Schweitzer agreed. “The truth is that even if they commit to putting smartphones on the work plan, then we have to go through the whole process of going through the requirements. You never know what the outcome from that will be.”