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What Happened: July 27, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Jan 6 committee’s rocky start; CDC says mask indoors; Understanding Right to Repair

The Scroll
July 27, 2021

The Big Story

In dramatic and emotional testimony Tuesday, at the first hearing of the select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, witnesses described it as a terrorist insurrection and attempted—at times by misrepresenting facts—to highlight the violent nature of the event. In testimony, both members of Congress and Capitol security officers alleged or implied that 42-year-old Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick was killed in the line of duty on Jan. 6—contradicting the medical examiner’s conclusion, as well as statements from Sicknick’s family, that he died of “natural” causes. Ignoring the medical findings, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, alleged that “seven people lost their lives” at the Capitol—a figure that would have to include Sicknick. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn testified that Sicknick “died from injuries he sustained in the line of duty.” Another officer, Aquilino Gonel, referred to the department having “lost officers” as a “result of that day.” These references perpetuated a narrative set in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol riot as reports circulated that Sicknick was “killed by a pro-Trump mob,” as a New York Times headline from Jan 8 alleged. The select committee investigation faces claims of partisanship after House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi refused to allow two Republicans on the committee who contested the results of the 2020 election. The repetition of the debunked Sicknick narrative, in the midst of a hearing that frequently referred to the pro-Trump protestors and rioters as terrorists and violent insurrectionists, will give credence to those allegations. It also adds to broader concerns that the committee aims to cast political opposition in the same light as domestic terrorism.

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Today’s Back Pages: Understanding the “Right to Repair”

The Rest

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reversed its policy Tuesday and recommended that people who have already been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus wear masks in schools and other public indoor spaces. The decision is driven by increased rates of infection in parts of the United States with low vaccination rates, coupled with new evidence of “breakthrough” cases, in which people who have already been vaccinated contract COVID-19—apparently driven by the new Delta variant of the virus. New York and California both instituted policies in the past 48 hours mandating that government workers who have not been vaccinated undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to require that its employees be vaccinated.

Classified Iranian documents published Monday night by British outlet Sky News appear to show secret plans developed by Tehran for conducting cyberattacks against infrastructure targets in the West. The documents, which include plans to target naval vessels and fuel stations, allegedly come from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ cyber warfare unit known as Unit 13.
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Electric car maker Tesla surged past expectations in its quarterly earnings report released Monday, earning $1.14 billion in net income for the quarter—a tenfold increase over profits from the same period last year, and the first time the company has surpassed $1 billion in a single quarter. While other automakers have struggled in the post-pandemic environment, Tesla reported deliveries of 201,250 electric cars in the quarter that ended June 30, 2021.

Citing mental and emotional strain, Simone Biles, the 24-year-old star of the U.S. gymnastics team, abruptly withdrew from competition in the Tokyo Olympics. “I have to focus on my mental health,” the four-time Olympic gold medalist said, naming as an inspiration the Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from a number of major tournaments this year because she felt they were detrimental to her mental well-being. “There’s more to life than just gymnastics,” Biles told reporters Tuesday.

The last unaccounted-for victim of the building collapse in Surfside, Florida, has been located by recovery teams and identified as Estelle Hedaya, 54, bringing the death toll to 98. The deadly collapse occurred last month in a building that had previously been cited in a 2018 engineering report for its structural flaws. Florida officials have not yet made a conclusive determination on what caused the collapse.

Hailed as the great democratic success story of the Arab Spring protests of 2012, Tunisia’s nascent democracy has entered a crisis after President Kais Saied fired the prime minister, justice minister, and defense minister and suspended parliament. Despite concerns that the North African country is slipping back toward autocracy, reports from Tunisia show few signs of large-scale popular unrest.

After a meeting Monday at the White House between President Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, Biden announced that the United States would conclude its combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021 and maintain only a “train and assist” role, as Kadhimi has requested, as the part of the two countries’ joint counter-ISIS mission.

LeVar Burton made his debut Monday night helming Jeopardy!, as the popular TV quiz show tries out new hosts to replace the late Alex Trebek. The former host of popular children’s show Reading Rainbow, also known for his roles in Star Trek: The Next Generation and the film Roots, has emerged as a popular choice among pop-culture-engaged internet users who have rallied behind him as he goes up against other temporary hosts—including Aaron Rodgers and George Stephanopoulos.

The Back Pages

Understanding the “Right to Repair”

With the “right to repair” emerging as a central plank in new antitrust and pro-economic competition efforts led by the Biden administration, Ross Anderson, a former Tablet fellow who writes about consumer technology, explains exactly what that is and why you should care.

A single light bulb in California has been burning continuously for 120 years. But building products that last a lifetime is bad business—and that’s why the standard incandescent light bulbs you can buy at any store last less than a year.

It’s easy to be cynical about planned obsolescence, a term that comes from the 1932 paper “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence,” but it has benefits: driving innovation through increased product iterations, reducing prices, fueling the market, and making secondhand devices cheaper and more widely available.

But for consumers to take full advantage of those benefits, products have to be repairable. In the past, this was a given, but many companies, especially in the consumer electronics market, now work hard to make sure that consumers cannot choose where and how to fix products they purchase but instead have to get them fixed by the same companies that deliberately designed them with flaws. That unfair and inefficient system increases e-Waste and robs consumers. Hence, the Right to Repair campaign that is using legal and legislative means to ensure that consumers can exercise choice over how to fix the things they own.

“Right to repair” does not mean warranties should be infinite, consumers must repair their devices, intellectual property rights should be sacrificed, or that your iPhone has to last a century. Rather, it aims to prevent companies from restricting the flow of tools, parts, and diagnostics to third parties—such as repair shops—who are otherwise able to fix these devices. This occurs across sectors, from medicine to farming and the military and—most notably—consumer electronics.

The most infamous example of this is Apple, which puts absurd premiums on basic repairs whilst stemming the flow of spare parts, goes after small repair stores, and issues warning signs if your battery or screen is fixed by anyone but the $2 trillion company’s own designated technicians. The company also lobbies against Right to Repair bills whilst feigning to care about repair shops with a worthless, invasive program.

Apple, however, also demonstrates where easy repairability and technological progress come into irresolvable conflict. With our desire for smaller, lighter devices (in thin phones, laptops, and smart watches, or implants such as Neuralink), computing power can’t be increased by making components bigger. Instead, we need to make them denser and more tightly integrated. By placing all the core components of a traditional computer onto a single chip, Apple’s new M1 “System on a Chip” demonstrates just how potent this can be, leaping far ahead of traditional Intel or AMD competitors in power and battery life. This is where future electronics must head. And yet, it means that previously easy fixes now require expertise and a microscope to fix.

But that isn’t an argument against the right to repair. In fact, as the increased density and intricacy of technology makes repair work more specialized, it only strengthens the imperative for companies to provide diagnostics, tools, and parts to qualified technicians who can keep their products functioning. That doesn’t curb innovation—as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak notes, the company only exists because of open hardware.

So far, a bipartisan coalition across 19 states has passed Right to Repair bills, with more coming. President Biden recently signed an executive order containing “Right to Repair” provisions, and the FTC is finally taking this issue seriously. But that’s just a start. Executive orders are presidential letters of intent, and even those supportive of Biden’s order note that it misses several key areas (notably, medical devices and e-Waste), and without comprehensive federal legislation, a “patchwork” approach would prove deeply insufficient. Similarly, a recent British Right to Repair bill carved a nice big exemption for consumer electronics, suggesting that lobbying money is well spent.

In the absence of equally powerful lobbying efforts, individual consumers will have to depend on their elected representatives to bring the force of law behind the right to repair.

Ross Anderson was a 2020 fellow at Tablet magazine and has written for Los Angeles Magazine and The American Conservative. Follow him at @ThatRossChap.

Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel and Park MacDougald.