Apple Is Telling Lawmakers People Will Hurt Themselves if They Try to Fix iPhones

An Apple lobbyist brought an iPhone to meetings with California lawmakers and said consumers could hurt themselves by puncturing a lithium-ion battery.

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Apr 30 2019, 7:56pm

Image: Shutterstock

Update 4/30/19, 5:22 pm: The bill has been pulled by its sponsor, Susan Talamantes-Eggman: "It became clear that the bill would not have the support it needed today, and manufacturers had sown enough doubt with vague and unbacked claims of privacy and security concerns," she said. Her full statement has been added at the end of the piece.

In recent weeks, an Apple representative and a lobbyist for CompTIA, a trade organization that represents big tech companies, have been privately meeting with legislators in California to encourage them to kill legislation that would make it easier for consumers to repair their electronics, Motherboard has learned.

According to two sources in the California State Assembly, the lobbyists have met with members of the Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee, which is set to hold a hearing on the bill Tuesday afternoon. The lobbyists brought an iPhone to the meetings and showed lawmakers and their legislative aides the internal components of the phone. The lobbyists said that if improperly disassembled, consumers who are trying to fix their own iPhone could hurt themselves by puncturing the lithium-ion battery, the sources, who Motherboard is not naming because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said.

The argument is similar to one made publicly by Apple executive Lisa Jackson in 2017 at TechCrunch Disrupt, when she said the iPhone is “too complex” for normal people to repair them.

In the past, Apple has lobbied against so-called right to repair legislation—which would require Apple and other electronics companies to sell repair parts and tools, and make diagnostic and repair information available to the general public. In 2017, New York State records showed that the company hired a lobbyist to push against the issue there, and an Apple lobbyist in Nebraska told a lawmaker there that passing a right to repair bill would turn the state into a “Mecca for bad actors,” criminals, and hackers. Following media coverage of Apple lobbying in those two states, the company has been much quieter. Rather than lobbying on its own behalf, the company has relied on CompTIA, an organization funded by tech companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung, to testify against the legislation at hearings and meet with lawmakers.

The in-person meetings in California came a few weeks after CompTIA and 18 other trade organizations associated with big tech companies—including CTIA and the Entertainment Software Association—sent letters in opposition of the legislation to members of the Assembly’s Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee. One copy of the letter, addressed to committee chairperson Ed Chau and obtained by Motherboard, urges the chairperson “against moving forward with this legislation.” CTIA represents wireless carriers including Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, while the Entertainment Software Association represents Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, and other video game manufacturers.

“With access to proprietary guides and tools, hackers can more easily circumvent security protections, harming not only the product owner but also everyone who shares their network,” the letter, obtained by Motherboard, stated. “When an electronic product breaks, consumers have a variety of repair options, including using an OEM’s [original equipment manufacturer] authorized repair network.”

Experts, however, say Apple's and CompTIA's warnings are far overblown. People with no special training regularly replace the batteries or cracked screens in their iPhones, and there are thousands of small, independent repair companies that regularly fix iPhones without incident. The issue is that many of these companies operate in a grey area because they are forced to purchase replacement parts from third parties in Shenzhen, China, because Apple doesn’t sell them to independent companies unless they become part of the “Apple Authorized Service Provider Program,” which limits the types of repairs they are allowed to do and requires companies to pay Apple a fee to join.

“To suggest that there are safety and security concerns with spare parts and manuals is just patently absurd,” Nathan Proctor, director of consumer rights group US PIRG’s right to repair campaign told Motherboard in a phone call. “We know that all across the country, millions of people are doing this for themselves. Millions more are taking devices to independent repair technicians.”

The CompTIA letter is the same as letters sent to lawmakers in other states that are considering substantially different bills, and very similar to a letter sent last year by the organization. The California bill, notably, is more narrowly tailored than legislation that has been introduced in 19 other states nationwide. Rather than requiring manufacturers to release diagnostic software that might be required to repair a device, it only requires manufacturers to sell “functional parts, on fair and reasonable terms,” and provide “sufficient service literature, at no charge” to the public.

"Manufacturers have a gut reaction of opposing rather than speaking to what the bill actually says"

“I have seen the coalition letter in opposition to [the bill] and it was disappointing to say the least. Not the fact that there was opposition, but that it was almost a cut and paste, word-for-word copy of the letter opposing my bill last year,” Susan Talamantes-Eggman, who is sponsoring the bill, told Motherboard in an email.

“While they are similar in intent, we worked very hard over the last year to address many of the concerns that the opposition has raised, with a much narrower scope of products and requirements, but they seem to have a gut reaction of opposing rather than speaking to what the bill actually says,” she added. “All [the bill] does is require information and parts that manufacturers have been required to provide in California for decades to also be available to regulated independent repair shops and individual owners.”

Though Apple hasn’t publicly talked much about repair in recent months and years, Motherboard reported in March that Apple has quietly approached independent repair companies with a new program called “Apple Genuine Parts Repair,” which would allow a select few companies to purchase repair parts from Apple with few restrictions. The slides associated with the program, obtained by Motherboard, suggest that Apple could comply with right to repair legislation without much burden.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A CompTIA representative told Motherboard in an email that it “[does not] have any additional information to provide at this time.”

Tuesday, right to repair proponents launched a new organization called Securepairs.org, founded by Paul Roberts of SecurityLedger.com, a long-running security news website. The organization announced Tuesday that a handful of notable, independent security researchers including cryptographer Bruce Schneier, Jon Callas of the ACLU, and hacker Joe Grand (formerly known as Kingpin) believe there are no security concerns associated with right to repair legislation. The purpose of the group is to push back against the claims made by CompTIA and other lobbyists fighting against right to repair legislation.

“The security of devices is not related to diagnostics and service manuals, they’re related to poor code with vulnerabilities, weak authentication, devices deployed by default to be vulnerable,” Roberts told Motherboard. “We all know there’s no debate. Security for connected devices has nothing to do with repair.”

Update: Talamantes-Eggman pulled the bill moments before the hearing. In a statement, Talamantes-Eggman told Motherboard:

“Today I decided to pull Assembly Bill 1163 from consideration in the Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee, with the goal of moving the bill in January of next year. While this was not an easy decision, it became clear that the bill would not have the support it needed today, and manufacturers had sown enough doubt with vague and unbacked claims of privacy and security concerns.

I feel that we are on the right side of this issue, and that ultimately the bill will prevail. Unfortunately, presenting it today would not advance the issue because it would jeopardize our opportunity to continue working on the bill next year. I will be working with members of the committee in the coming months to secure the support needed to make the Right to Repair a reality in California.”