Do You Own Your Smartphone or Does the Manufacturer?
If you can’t fix a device yourself or choose who does, do you really own it when it’s paid off or are you just using it until the next upgrade? As consumers, do we really know how much control manufacturers have over who makes repairs and how long our devices last?
Manufacturers use IP rights to require consumers to use pre-authorized repair services and components. Since most of the software and hardware that make up smartphones are protected by IP rights, you end up at the mercy of the device manufacturer for the rest of its digital life.
Additionally, if you use third-party repair services or components, you could be held liable for violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Under the DMCA, not using an authorized repair service could be considered a way of circumventing safety and functionality measures put in place by the manufacturer.
With the growing cost of smartphones — and the fact that approximately 151 million of them make their way to incinerators or landfills each year — it’s no surprise US consumers and legislators are looking for ways to make devices last longer. This is where the Right-to-Repair Law (and its subsequent following of supporters), which is gaining momentum worldwide, comes into play.
To gain a better understanding of what people think about these issues in the US, we surveyed 1,000+ smartphone users in the US to determine how much consumers know about manufacturer control, laws regarding ownership, and the Right to Repair (R2R) movement.
What Is the R2R Movement?
The UK passed a Right to Repair law in 2021. This is legislation that requires manufacturers to make replacement parts and repair instructions available to consumers and third parties. The goal of the law was to reduce electronic waste (or e-waste) by making parts available for up to ten years so consumers could keep their devices longer, as well as giving them the right to choose who repaired their home appliances.
This eventually grew to include digital devices like computers and smartphones. Ultimately, the law sparked a call for similar legislation in other countries, including the EU and the US — thus the R2R Movement was born. Its followers believe their countries should provide the same rights to consumers as the UK’s law.
Without the right to repair, you could make the case that manufacturers essentially own both your hardware and software. Until all states have active legislation in place regarding the right to repair smart devices, you might want to consider a VPN download. A VPN can’t stop you from dropping your phone and cracking the screen, but it can help prevent cybercriminals from using weak spots to exploit your software and damage your device.
What We Discovered through Our Survey & Research
Our survey spanned consumers ages 18–69+ across the US, as we hoped to gain a broader perspective regarding current knowledge of the R2R movement and a deeper understanding of people’s view of smartphone ownership.
Almost an equal number of men and women completed our survey, and participants were spread throughout the 50 states. This gave us a more diverse view of consumer knowledge and opinions.
We wanted to gauge the overall replacement rate for smartphones based on the availability of repair options. Our results showed that 18% of consumers replace their phone every time an upgrade becomes available, while 34% only purchased a new phone if their current phone was broken beyond repair.
The bulk of respondents didn’t believe other electronic devices, including laundry machines, TVs, and refrigerators, needed to be replaced as frequently as our smartphones. Keep in mind that the average cost of a washer and dryer set is around $1,000–2,300, in comparison to the iPhone 15 Pro base cost at $999, and the Galaxy S23 Ultra at around $1,600.
These are just two examples of the newest phones, both of which can cost more or less depending on where you buy them and what features and hardware you choose to include. The cost of a washer and dryer set isn’t far off of what consumers spend on one smartphone every two years, but most participants wouldn’t replace other major appliances that often.
This proves just how commonplace it has become to toss out smartphones and other tech the moment our current device is “outdated” or difficult to repair. But what about those who want to keep their phones longer – is it even possible?
Do Manufacturers Deliberately Make It Hard to Repair Devices?
Enacting right-to-repair laws is attractive to consumers who are fed up with expensive repairs and having to change phones every two years. Unfortunately, legislation alone won’t do much good if manufacturers don’t do anything to increase the life of their products.
The average lifespan of a smartphone is around 2–3 years, which means consumers are essentially forced to upgrade before the four-year mark if affordable repair options aren’t available. This is suspiciously close to the average amount of time it takes to pay off a smartphone contract through your cellular provider.
Knowing this, it’s unsurprising that over 80% of survey participants think manufacturers purposely make their devices difficult to repair, as well as give them a short shelf life.
In some cases, fixing a smartphone can cost more than replacing it, especially when you can turn it in for credit toward a new phone (at least those old phones are properly disposed of or refurbished). Determining factors for repair versus replacement include:
- Current right-to-repair laws in your country
- Model and brand of phone you have
- Level of device damage (broken screen, bad battery, etc.)
- Existing software issues (compatibility with the most current OS and apps, etc.)
- Availability of components and repair services in your area
How Manufacturers Feel about the R2R Movement
Manufacturers generally aren’t on board with the R2R movement, opposing it on the basis that unauthorized technicians could use substandard replacement components and compromise devices’ security and overall integrity. They also believe it could lead to functionality issues and pose a threat to consumer information, leaving holes that increase the risk of malware infections and data breaches.
Moreover, many manufacturers state that they require repairs to go through authorized services to prevent consumers and third-party shops from infringing on their IP rights, or violating the DMCA and facing legal action. Still, the real reason they don’t back the movement may not be so noble.
Controlling who repairs their product, the information on how to repair the device, and where the components come from means manufacturers can create and maintain a monopoly on their corner of the market. When they have this control, they can charge whatever they want for repairs or components. After all, without right-to-repair legislation, you have to use the components specified by the manufacturer and the approved repair service. You’re stuck, even after you pay off your device.
Does the US Have a Right-to-Repair Law?
The R2R movement has seen rapid progress in the US. As of 2023, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Colorado had already passed some form of digital right-to-repair legislation. All other states — except Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Mississippi — either have active bills in progress or are introducing bills to the state government.
President Biden signed an executive order in 2021 encouraging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to create regulations to stop manufacturers from preventing individuals and repair services from repairing their own devices. Unfortunately, the language wasn’t clear enough to create legislation on a federal level. This was primarily because legislators needed to make sure they weren’t circumventing current laws and protections given to manufacturers, including IP rights and the DMCA.
Our survey results back the ongoing desire for this type of legislation across the US. When asked whether they would repair or replace their phone if it were easier to fix it (e.g. install a new battery or change the screen), 60% of participants said they’d repair their device.
You Don’t Own Your Smartphone
The bulk of our survey respondents correctly believe that once their phone is paid off they own the hardware. Still, the physical components of the phone are useless without the software. Software controls the device and the manufacturers control the software. In other words, no, you don’t own your device — not really.
Manufacturers will always hold the copyright to software in smartphones. This means that even if right-to-repair laws are passed throughout the US, manufacturers will still have control over your device’s shelf life. They can choose to make new software incompatible with existing devices, and stop creating patches and updates for a product.
This issue is compounded by how few consumers pay attention to the Terms and Conditions (ToCs) when they purchase a product. These ToCs contain many of the restrictions that make it almost impossible to repair your phone. Some manufacturers purposely use confusing legal language and add clauses that may allow them to repossess your phone if you violate the ToCs.
According to a study performed by ProPrivacy in 2020, only 1% of tech users read ToCs before accepting them. The experiment included a faux set of ToCs which users were required to read and agree to before completing the rest of the survey. 99% of participants agreed to the following terms:
- ✅ The ability to name the consumer’s first-born child
- ✅ Full rights to give their mother complete access to their browsing history
- ✅ Permission to invite an FBI agent to Christmas dinner for the next 10 years
- ✅ Permission to litter their streaming platforms with suggestions for terrible stand-up specials
- ✅ Access to the airspace above their home for drone traffic use
While hilarious, it shows just how little attention consumers pay to their rights when it comes to tech and, to a greater extent, their data.
Paying close attention to what you’re agreeing to when you buy a device is a smart way to ensure you don’t get stuck with a product you’re unable to repair properly if you need to. You may never truly own your smartphone, but you can protect yourself. Reading the ToCs and contract agreements, and following current legislation for your state is the best way to ensure you aren’t being taken advantage of.
Own Your Phone with Right-to-Repair Laws
The bad news is it’s unlikely you’ll ever truly own your smartphone, but the good news is that you may be able to keep it running longer depending on where you live in the US. Thanks to the R2R movement, the US is on track to have digital right-to-repair laws in all 50 states within the next five years. If you’re tech-savvy enough, you can even try to fix it yourself. Just be careful, if you haven’t paid it off it may void any existing warranty on the device.