By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The New York Times featured a piece earlier this month about how the pandemic is worsening the digital divide and thus indirectly worsening inequality, The Digital Divide Starts With a Laptop Shortage. Yet while that account is a decent statement of that problem, it fails to highlight an obvious remedy: adopting a right to repair.

Not only would such a solution help reduce inequality, but it would also help reduce global warming, as it would reduce the amount of computers that must be disposed of, as well as reduce the number of number of excess machines that need to be created in the first place.

Over to the NYT:

When the Guilford County Schools in North Carolina spent more than $27 million to buy 66,000 computers and tablets for students over the summer, the district ran into a problem: There was a shortage of cheap laptops, and the devices wouldn’t arrive until late October or November.
More than 4,000 students in the district had to start the school year without the computers they needed for remote learning.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Angie Henry, the district’s chief operations officer. “Kids are excited about school. They want to learn.”

Millions of children are encountering all sorts of inconveniences that come with digital instruction during the coronavirus pandemic. But many students are facing a more basic challenge: They don’t have computers and can’t attend classes held online.

A surge in worldwide demand by educators for low-cost laptops and Chromebooks — up to 41 percent higher than last year — has created monthslong shipment delays and pitted desperate schools against one another. Districts with deep pockets often win out, leaving poorer ones to give out printed assignments and wait until winter for new computers to arrive.

That has frustrated students around the country, especially in rural areas and communities of color, which also often lack high-speed internet access and are most likely to be on the losing end of the digital divide. In 2018, 10 million students didn’t have an adequate device at home, a study by education nonprofit Common Sense Media found. That gap, with much of the country still learning remotely, could now be crippling.

The problem outlined is not just one that affects the U.S., but the laptop shortage is worldwide, as the NYT recognizes:

Sellers are facing stunning demand from schools in countries from Germany to El Salvador, said Michael Boreham, an education technology analyst at the British company Futuresource Consulting. Japan alone is expected to order seven million devices.

Global computer shipments to schools were up 24 percent from 2019 in the second quarter, Mr. Boreham said, and were projected to hit that 41 percent jump in the third quarter, which just ended.

Chromebooks, web-based devices that run on software from Google and are made by an array of companies, are in particular demand because they cost less than regular laptops. That has put huge pressure on a supply chain that cobbles laptop parts from all over the world, usually assembling them in Asian factories, Mr. Boreham said.

While that supply chain has slowly geared up, the spike in demand is “so far over and above what has historically been the case,” said Stephen Baker, a consumer electronics analyst at the NPD Group. “The fact that we’ve been able to do that and there’s still more demand out there, it’s something you can’t plan for.”

Unsurprisingly, computer manufacturers, are more worried about goosing their bottom lines than improving access to their products. Over to the NYT again:

Adding to the problem, many manufacturers are putting a priority on producing expensive electronics that net greater profits, like gaming hardware and higher-end computers for at-home employees, said Erez Pikar, the chief executive of Trox, a company that sells devices to school districts.

Before the year began, Trox predicted it would deliver 500,000 devices to school districts in the United States and Canada in 2020, Mr. Pikar said. Now, the total will be two million. But North American schools are still likely to end the year with a shortage of more than five million devices, he said. He added that he was not aware of any large-scale efforts to get refurbished or donated laptops to school districts.

Right to Repair as Possible Remedy for Worldwide Laptop Shortage?

An obvious remedy would be to reuse or revitalise existing machines rather than making new ones. This would have the advantage of more or less immediate availability of lthe l laptops currently in short supply, as local repair shops could presumably act much more quickly and supply existing machines. By contrast, manufacturers cannot be as responsive as they must negotiate longer supply chains and distribution networks in oder to produce supply.

I reached out to Nathan Proctor, director of the Right to Repair Campaign for U.S. PIRG, an advocacy organization, to provide an explanation in a nutshell as to how by stymying a right to repair, many manufacturers are exacerbating rather than ameliorating the worldwide laptop shortage:

When companies block repair by refusing to provide access to diagnostic software, parts or service information, computers and tablets that should be in people’s hands end up as waste. Also, companies increasingly use software locks which lock out refurbishers. Meanwhile, when manufacturers get used items, they require recyclers to destroy instead of resue those devices. All of this undercuts the secondary market for used electronics, and reduces the supply of low-cost computers.

To flesh out his comment,  The Register has discussed Apple’s lawsuit against a recycling firm, for reselling perfectly usable products rather than breaking them down and recycling them, in Apple seeks damages from recycling firm that didn’t damage its devices: 100,000 iThings ‘resold’ rather than broken up as expected:

Apple in January sued the Canadian arm of Global Electric Electronic Processing (GEEP) for allegedly reselling roughly 100,000 iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches that were supposed to be broken up and recycled.

The lawsuit, first reported last week by The Logic, a paywalled Canadian tech publication, reportedly prompted a countersuit from GEEP Canada in July in which the recycler claimed the gadgets were resold by three rogue employees and that their little side hustle was not official policy.

According to The Logic, Apple claimed the iPhone maker sent GEEP more than half a million devices to be recycled between January 2015 and December 2017. When Apple audited the facility, it supposedly found lapses in on-site security, and then reviewed the serial numbers of the devices it had shipped.

Apple is said to have discovered that almost 20 per cent, or about 100,000, of the devices associated with those serial numbers were still active on mobile carrier networks. As a result, the iGiant is seeking $31m CAD ($23m) in damages plus any profit GEEP made on the resale.

That’s a lot of potential sales!

I can understand Apple suing the company because it thought to was paying for recycling rather than resale. But in a day where waste and excessive production are such major issues, shouldn’t that policy be reconsidered, so that someone should be reselling perfectly usable and operational items, whether Apple itself or an agent acting on its behalf?

It’s not just this lawsuit that’s the problem, as Proctor mentions. Apple also uses software locks to inactivate otherwise perfectly functional devices – some of which the original user donated so for environmental or equity reasons the the devices could be reused, but forgot to make the necessary unlocking fix and they item thereby ended up bricked. So that means Apple and other manufacturers are happy that the devices either end up in a landfill or that some have some components “recycled” rather than have the devices be used by someone who needs them.

Right to Repair is Gaining Popularity

The right to repair position seems to be gaining popularity. Earlier this month, I wrote about its resurgence as a ballot question concerning the use of telematics repair data by third party repair shops in Massachusetts, Right to Repair Redux: Massachusetts Ballot Questions.  The state had previously passed a landmark statute for auto repair in 2013, following voter direction via a ballot question. In writing that piece, I was surprised to see how well some people questioned had figured out exactly what high costs manufacturers were trying to do by resisting a right to repair.

As present, 32 states have put forward various forms of fight to repair legislation, according to The Markup, Why Can’t I Fix My Own Phone, Toaster, or Tractor? So far, no state has implemented such a provision. Click on the link if you have time, as it includes a table summarising the status of extant legislative proposals.

In the following twitter thread, Federal Trade Commissioner Rohit Chopra laws out the case for a Right to Repair – and why manufacturers hate it so. Hint: they make more money selling you new, unnecessary devices, rather than allowing you to repair or upgrade devices you already own.

Laptop Shortage and Right to Repair

And, to come back to that laptop shortage and how implementing a right to repair would address it, US PIRG has written a post, The Right to Repair could help address a critical shortage in school computers.

This is an idea whose time has not only come, but is well past due:

Whether or not you or your child can access a computer and the internet could mean the difference between getting an education this fall, or not. The stakes have perhaps never been higher for equitable computer access in the U.S. But thanks to disruptions in the supply chain, even though schools and businesses have ordered new computers, they aren’t showing up.

California is short 1 million computers. Denver’s public schools are lacking thousands of computers, while waiting for orders to be fulfilled. Delays are threatening remote learning for school districts in Nevada, and Louisiana. All across the country, schools are scrambling, from Savannah to Austin.

All across the country, refurbishers are stepping in to fill the gaps. In Delaware, a local non-profit called NERDit NOW is providing low-cost computers to students in partnership with local schools, and has ramped up its local operation. In Atlanta, New Life Tech Group, which normally refurbishes and donates 50 computers each year, ramped up its workflow and gave away more than 2,000. Both non-profits note that it costs about $50 to refurbish one laptop.

Necessity is the mother of invention.Two high school students started their own refurbishing program in Virginia, and as did an engineer in Florida to address the needs in their respective communities. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, a local television station is running a used computer drive to collect and refurbish devices for students.

Most of these community-refurbished computers are going directly to families, and not through the school system, explained Erez Pikar, the CEO of Toxell-CDI, one of the larger computer refurbishers. “Schools don’t have enough IT staff,” explained Pikar to U.S. PIRG, and therefore can’t support too many dissimilar devices. The best products for schools to use are refurbished business computers which tend to come in lot sizes big enough to give each student the same computer. Unfortunately, according to Pikar, businesses have been reluctant to send computers to refurbishers over the last few months.

U.S. PIRG emphasizes the lack of a right to repair means computer manufacturers are imposing barriers, rather than promoting solutions:

Even as refurbished computers are more and more mission critical, many barriers remain to getting them into the hands of students.
Many usable computers are sitting in corporate overstock or empty offices, and perhaps even in your basement. But even when refurbishers get those computers, they can’t always get them working because manufacturers restrict access to spare parts or manuals.

[TechDump CEO Amanda LaGrange] and other refurbishers describe bins of activation-locked devices in their facilities — devices that work fine, but are locked down because the original owner forgot to unlock her account when she donated or sold it.

We’d have a lot more computers available if the industry as a whole valued reuse and the secondary life of electronics.

According to LaGrange, manufacturers should use this as an opportunity to evaluate their positions regarding the right to repair and how lower barriers to repair could help address the digital divide.

“This would all be a lot easier if we had right to repair,” said LaGrange.

I’ll say.

So why don’t we?

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