How Recycling Computers Got One Man 15 Months in Prison
In a move that seems to go against the mantra of always reusing and recycling when possible rather than throwing items away, early 2018 saw a man jailed for making recovery disks to mend computers.
What is a recovery disk?
In the days when tech giant Microsoft issued Windows on a CD, a recovery disk could be used to recover a system that would not start. In the current version of Windows, Windows 10, most users do not have a physical Windows 10 disk.
A recovery disk can be created in one of the control panel options in Windows, but many computer users are not aware of this. The recovery files can be saved to a USB memory stick or burned to a recordable DVD. The easiest way to legally make your own Windows 10 recovery disk is to enter or speak the keywords “recovery disk” in Cortana and choose the recovery media option, then simply follow the prompts to make the disk.
The computer bios can be set to boot up from the CD drive or USB media where the recovery files are stored. The computer will then boot up to a menu offering various options to repair the Windows operating system.
If a user does not have a recovery disk, they can create one from another computer, or download the files from the Microsoft website. A lack of knowledge of how to do this means many functioning computers are sent to IT recycling companies, or end up in landfill, because they will not boot up to the Windows operating system.
Eric Lundgren vs. Microsoft
American entrepreneur Eric Lundgren owns a recycling company in Los Angeles, California that prevents harmful chemicals and toxic materials from ending up in landfill sites. To save computers who had a non-working operating system but were otherwise fine, he obtained his own recovery disks, which he intended to sell to computer users and repairers to save them downloading and making their own disks. He only wanted to charge a few cents for each disk to cover his costs.
Microsoft heard about this and started a case against Lundgren on the grounds of conspiracy and copyright infringement. Though recovery files are free, Microsoft holds the copyright on them and argues that making multiple recovery disks infringes this.
Though Lundgren had not actually sold or distributed any of his disks, a court awarded Microsoft $50,000 in compensation for lost sales. Not only that, but Lundgren was sentenced to 15 months in jail.
The U.S District Judge, Daniel T K Hurley sympathised with Lundgren, saying:
"This is a difficult sentencing because I credit everything you are telling me. You are a very remarkable person."
Despite the sympathy of the courts, Lundgren went to jail in June when he lost an appeal against the sentence.
Nathan Proctor from the Public Interest Research Group was keen to fight Lundgren’s corner too. He said:
“By repairing products instead of buying new ones—and helping others do the same—Lundgren is working to change a system that feeds on consumption and fills our country with abandoned electronics.”
What are the moral arguments?
Lundgren believes that computer manufacturers, particularly Microsoft as it gets paid for every installation of Windows on new computers, want people to get rid of non-working computers and buy new ones. He felt that making it easy for people to obtain restore disks would help more users restore computers rather than throw them away.
Lundgren feels that his company, IT Asset Partners is acting ethically in recycling electronic products. He has repaired and donated 14,000 mobile phones to the ‘Cellphones for Soldiers’ campaign to provide phones for soldiers deployed outside of the USA. His company is involved in projects to clean up electronic waste sites in Ghana and China.
Meanwhile, Microsoft and other software publishers are faced with the problem of piracy reducing their sales, and likely lose millions of dollars’ worth of sales per year because of illegal copies. This is why they have taken a tough stance against software pirates.
In the case of Lundgren, however, it can be argued that they have lost no sales of recovery files, as they do not charge for them. Not restoring computers may lead to more sales of Microsoft revenue producing computers, but if Microsoft does not want computers recovered, why is it offering recovery files?
Lundgren states that his actions did not contravene Microsoft's software licence and cause lost sales. For a recovery disk to work, users still need to have a licenced copy of Windows.
Apple has an alternative system. On a Mac computer, there is an option to download the operating system files from the Apple server if the system fails to boot.
Is there an alternative?
Some users are not too devastated if their computer will not boot up as long as they have their personal files backed up. Instead, they see it as an opportunity to purchase the latest laptop.
Ideally, they should give the computer to a company that specialises in secure IT disposals. Many IT disposal companies restore old computers to sell on the second hand computer market. Some ship restored and repaired computers to developing countries where many people cannot afford new computers.
Companies often dispose of fully working computers because they want better spec models. Safe computer disposal involves wiping all company data off hard drives and reselling them.
What about the environment?
Technology giants such as Apple, Microsoft and Google state they are committed to the environment. Safe IT disposal is an environmental issue, so if computers cannot be repaired, they can be given to an IT recycling company which will extract metals from them for recycling. Parts that still function can be used to repair other computers.
It has been suggested that tech companies should support the recycling of old appliances, but Microsoft's actions in the Lundgren give the impression that the firm is not completely behind recycling. Similarly, Apple has been accused of planned obsolescence in its equipment and encouraging its customers to regularly upgrade their iPads, laptops and iPhones to the latest versions.
If your phone, computer or tablet does everything that it needs to do, why upgrade? If your computer does not work, it may be repairable. The solution to getting it fully working again could be as simple as using a recovery disk, but you’ll have to look for someone other than Eric Lundgren to supply it!
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© 2019 Mary Gevorgyan