Europe’s Proposed Right-To-Repair Law: A Game Changer, Or Business As Usual?

Recently, the European Commission (EC) adopted a new proposal intended to enable and promote the repair of a range of consumer goods, including household devices like vacuum cleaners and washing machines, as well as electronic devices such as smartphones and televisions. Depending on how the European Parliament and Council vote in the next steps, this proposal may shape many details of how devices we regularly interact with work, and how they can be repaired when they no longer do.

As we have seen recently with the Digital Fair Repair Act in New York, which was signed into law last year, the devil is as always in the details. In the case of the New York bill, the original intent of enabling low-level repairs on defective devices got hamstrung by added exceptions and loopholes that essentially meant that entire industries and types of repairs were excluded. Another example of ‘right to repair’ being essentially gamed involves Apple’s much-maligned ‘self repair’ program, that is both limited and expensive.

So what are the chances that the EU will succeed where the US has not?

The Proposal

At its core, the EC proposal involves the following:

  • Within the warranty period, the seller must offer repair services, except when repair is more expensive than a replacement.
  • Beyond the warranty period, customers must have access to repair options for all devices that are considered ‘repairable’ under EU law.
  • Sellers are legally obligated to inform their customers about these options.
  • Establishing of an online ‘match-making’ repair platform to connect consumers with repair services and sellers of refurbished devices.
  • The ability to request full information on repair conditions and price from repair shops by customers.
  • The introduction of a European quality standard for repair services.

What these measures seek to address is the inability of customers to have devices repaired, despite a willingness by the majority of Europeans to make use of such repair services. This should not be too surprising, as repair is often a more consumer-friendly option than a replacement. Imagine a washing machine or refrigerator that you have had in use for years with no problems, until something small like a seal or sensor needed replacing. In these cases it would be much less of a hassle to either replace it yourself or have someone replace it for you, rather than having to purchase a whole new device, having it delivered and disposing of the old one.

Naturally, this all relies on replacement parts being available and affordable. In the case of Apple’s repair programs, only some replacement parts are at all, and all too often for an entire assembly rather than a singular component. When the cost of repairing a device begins to approach the cost of replacing it, most will replace it, as a new device will come with a full warranty and be generally seen as the better deal.

If the EC proposal, once implemented, has the requisite ability to enforce fine-grained repair options, we may see the return of devices that are designed to be diagnosed and repaired. This would not only be a good thing for consumers, but also for the environment, as recycling is usually not the optimal solution.


Attitudes towards consumer goods have changed over the past decades. Whereas repair shops were a common sight in the 1980s, and devices such as washing machines but also home computers like the Commodore 64 had repair and diagnosis manuals available for them. These featured not only full schematics and assembly diagrams, but also lists of individual replacement parts and the part number to use when ordering a replacement from the manufacturer. In a way, this provided a guaranteed revenue flow for devices, even after the customer had purchased them.

Compare this to modern-day smartphones, which do not come with schematics, rarely offer even full replacement assemblies, and use a bewildering amount of glue and screws that makes any repair an exercise in frustration. As demonstrated in a recent repair video by Hugh Jeffreys on an iPhone 14 Pro Max that suffered damage to the glass enclosure, even sourcing replacement parts from third-party sellers may not be enough to restore full functionality. Despite hours of tedious micro-surgery on the smartphone, Hugh ran into the final insult in the form of Apple’s insistence on matching serial numbers of individual components within the phone, leading to disabling features such as auto screen brightness adjustment.

The reasoning behind this is in a way understandable, of course. The revenue from new purchases will always be higher than for repairs, making planned and even forced obsolescence sensible approaches to maximize revenue. Yet at the same time, consumers are waking up to the benefits of repair, which is a selling point that companies such as Valve are leaning into, with products like their Steam Deck, for which you can actually purchase OEM replacement components, along with repair guides, even if schematics or a block diagram are still missing.

As with the original draft of the controversial Digital Fair Repair Act, the best case is that schematics and parts are made available to make board-level repairs possible. It has been demonstrated repeatedly in repair videos by Louis Rossmann and others that devices like a laptop often stop working due to something as simple as a shorted SMD capacitor, or power management chip (PMIC). Being able to rapidly diagnose and fix common issues would make such simple repairs much more economical, and having schematics would help repair shops to develop their own diagnostics.

Finally, being able to get replacements for less common parts like specialized ASICs is essential, without having to gamble on likely harvested chips from random Chinese marketplaces. So with all this in mind, does the EC proposal have any teeth here that would force manufacturers to enable repairing?

Design For Repair

When we look at the proposal (PDF), in chapter 5, article 5 the ‘Obligation to repair’ is detailed. Here the wish is uttered that repairs can be regarded as a source of revenue, but without enforcement. Perhaps the most interesting element is found in the directive itself, in Article 5(3), that states that “Producers shall ensure that independent repairers have access to spare parts and repair-related information and tools [..]”.

In short, this proposal is at first glance rather similar to the ‘right to repair’ bills that have been put forward in the US over the years, one of which got mauled in New York. Although interesting as an indication of intent, it should be clear that this EC proposal has to make it through the European Parliament and further bodies unscathed to even stand a chance of making an impact.

Here another proposal by the EC against ‘greenwashing’ could perhaps be more effective. This concerns essentially regulations for the advertising of environmental claims, such as the use of recycled plastics and ‘carbon-neutral production’. These claims would need to be independently verified and communicated to the consumer using clear labeling that should provide more transparency about the true environmental impact of new devices.

As reported by The Register, the Right to Repair Coalition welcomed the EC proposal, but strongly feels that it doesn’t go nearly far enough in making repairing devices easy or affordable, also due to the relatively limited number of devices covered by the proposal.

Intellectual Property

Two of the most common arguments used against letting repair shops and consumers repair their own devices would appear to be regarding ‘safety’ and about giving competitors an edge. The former refers to the risk from poor repairs and low-quality parts, possibly installed by unscrupulous repair shops, which could ‘injure or kill’ consumers. This is a claim that holds little water; official parts and repairs are already responsible for significantly more harm, as Louis Rossmann has harped on repeatedly in his video blogs.

That competitors might make knock-off products or steal IP if full schematics were made available is the second big argument, yet the easy counter argument here is that to do diagnosis you do not need to have the production files, only enough connectivity data to pin-point the faulty part(s) that are making the system not work, after which you can replace it and send the customer on their merry way. And besides, we all know that Phone Company A has enough resources and incentive to reverse Phone Company B’s phone anyway.

Such arguments get increasingly more silly in the case of common household devices such as washing machines and refrigerators. When the fix of replacing a few seals or belt – maybe a compressor unit if it’s truly knackered – is a complex task, it should be clear that such household goods were never designed to be maintained. The increase in flimsy plastic bits in such goods that do not have an official replacement would attest to this notion.

Ultimately, the fight to be allowed to repair our own devices is one that is unlikely to end any time soon, and whether or not this proposal will emerge with enough teeth to help is an open question. What we as consumers can do, however, is to actively choose devices that are repairable.

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