The Ballad of ChuxMan: Hacker airs out appliance company’s dirty laundry
A twitter user by the name of ChuxMan had a problem: his washing machine stopped working and he needed the machine’s firmware to fix it. Being an especially savvy washing machine owner living in Europe, ChuxMan knew that there are laws in the EU requiring companies to offer such information. He requested this information from the manufacturer – which promptly refused his request. They instead recommended he buy a whole new board assembly (which would be almost as expensive as the washing machine) rather than simply replace the failed component on his existing washing machine.
Not dissuaded, he turned to hacking. Using an Arduino programmed as ICSP and a software called AVRDUDE, a tool for downloading and uploading firmware from AVR microcontrollers, to extract the firmware from the microcontroller of his mother’s washing machine – allowing him to fix the software issue plaguing his machine.
This scenario highlights one of the many issues complicating consumer repair of home appliances – and one of the ways that companies maintain control over devices that consumers own long after they make their purchase. In addition to withholding information needed to carry out repairs, manufacturers also refuse to sell replacement parts for their products, or they bundle parts, thereby forcing consumers to pay for far more technology than they need to fix a problem, and charge exorbitant prices for these parts bundles.
This issue came up in the fallout from the New York Digital Fair Repair Act. That state’s Governor, Kathy Hochul, forced the legislature to remove language that would have prevented this type of activity. For example, a last minute change demanded by Governor Hochul exempted “printed board assemblies that may allow device cloning” from parts that must be made available by manufacturers under the law, greatly limiting the types of repairs New Yorkers can do.
Right to repair: its the enforcement, stupid!
The hacking community has always been creative in finding solutions to companies keeping them from controlling and modding with the things they own. And in this case, ChuxMan was victorious. But the hackers are outgunned, and the fear of lawsuits has kept them from sharing their fixes or seek workarounds like Travis Goodspeed’s “junk hacking” of low value items like children’s toys to avoid lawsuits.
In the case of ChuxMan, of course, the EU already has laws in place to force companies to share the kind of information he sought. But the company’s ability to refuse to distribute that information is a reminder that enforcement, not just legislation, is a crucial piece of the puzzle in making products more repairable.
The ChuxMan incident is just the latest example of the link between software access and repair restrictions. Others are:
Throttlegate: Consumers caught Apple using software to purposely slow down older iPhones – strongly nudging users to purchase new models. Lawsuits followed.
John Deere: Farmers have filed a class action lawsuit against the tractor giant for using software locks and measures to restrict the ability of farmers and independent repair shops to repair and maintain their equipment.
McFlurry Machines: Software company Kytch uncovered that the reason McDonald’s ice cream machines are always broken is actually because the company that makes and repairs them, Taylor Company, runs them on software settings to ensure they break down quick – which makes them more money on repair services. Kytch is currently suing Taylor.
With repair advocates focused on passing legislation in the U.S. that makes access to repair information, tools and parts the law, ChuxMan’s struggles with his washing machine reminds us that passing laws is just the beginning, not the end, of the fight for the right to repair.
How big tech re-wrote the nations first cell phone repair law. A report in Grist by Maddie Stone lays bear the machinations of Big Tech lobbyists in re-writing the nation’s first-ever electronics right to repair…and the willingness of a compliant New York Governor to play along. According to the report, the passage of the Digital Fair Repair Act last June caught the tech industry off guard, prompting a full court press on the newly seated New York Governor to win exemptions and changes that would water the bill down. They were largely successful: While the bill Hochul signed in late December remains a victory for the right-to-repair movement, the more corporate-friendly text gives consumers and independent repair shops less access to parts and tools than the original proposal called for. (The state Senate still has to vote to adopt the revised bill, but it’s widely expected to do so.)
Does putting your EV in rice fix it? YouTuber Rich Rebuilds attempted to restore a hurricane flood-damaged Audi E-Tron by drying it out with 4,200 pounds of expired rice. The attempt resulted in the car powering on and moving under its own power, but with many fault codes displayed on the dashboard.
3D printing glasses challenges monopoly: One company, Luxottica, controls majority of the major brands in the $28 billion global eyeglasses industry. A new 3D printing project allowing people to easily print frames aims to disrupt that market power.
Where is EU taking repair in 2023? In 2022, the EU reached an agreement on its Battery Regulation, requiring manufacturers of most consumer products to make batteries replaceable and move away from disposable devices. They also finalized ecodesign measures for smartphones and tablets, which will require spare parts be available for at least 7 years (and provide software and security updates for at least 5 years).
In 2023, the EU’s priorities include combatting greenwashing, premature obsolescence, anti-repair software practices, and financial barriers to repair.
U.S. starts 2023 with mixed bag of repair legislation: The U.S. has seen a flurry of bills in the past month with the start of a number of legislative sessions – but not every bill is making it through key stumbling blocks:
Colorado introduces agricultural bill: Colorado lawmakers are trying to pass House Bill 1011 to grant Coloradans the right to repair their agricultural equipment. The bill requires manufacturers to sell tools, parts, and digital access to farmers and independent repair shops to diagnose and fix problems with equipment starting in 2024. The bill is opposed by manufacturers who argue that it would give individuals the ability to tamper with equipment beyond repairs.
Montana halts wheelchair bill: A bill that would have required motorized wheelchair manufacturers to provide information (manuals and some software) to enable repairs by the users or independent repair shops was narrowly voted down in Montana. Safety concerns were the chief argument against the bill, with Republicans and a medical device trade association arguing users would damage their chairs.
Washington Electronics Bill: Bill AB1392 aims to promote the fair and sustainable repair of digital electronic equipment like computers, phones, and tablets. The focus of the bill is to increase afforability and accessability of repairs to both rural and low-income consumers.
Watch the hearing from the Consumer Protection and Business committee
Ownership in a digital world: The Christian Science Monitor has a piece out on right to repair sepcifically focused on the changing definition of ownership in the digital age.
Tweet of the Week
Refurbisher John Bumstead made news when he called attention to the piles of working MacBooks in his shop – unrecoverable due to Apple’s draconian activation locks. Now he’s put more numbers to the problem: sharing data from larger recyclers of the Apple devices getting scrapped because Activation locks render the functioning devices useless.