Tech Giants Fight Digital Right-to-Repair Bills

Twenty states this year considered right-to-repair bills that would force tech firms to share parts and equipment with independent shops. So far, none of the bills has gone anywhere.

Twenty states this year considered right-to-repair bills that would force tech firms to share parts and equipment with independent shops. So far, none of the bills has gone anywhere. Shutterstock

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The measures would require manufacturers to supply parts to independent repair shops.

This article originally appeared on Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Alex Buchon carefully inserted a slim, credit-card-sized tool into the gently warmed glue holding a broken iPad together. Patiently, he sliced through the glue to separate the screen from the rest of the device, exposing its innards.

The electronics technician needed to get inside to determine whether the device needed a new battery. If so, he wouldn’t be able to get it from Apple — the company makes them available only to Apple dealers and Apple-authorized repair shops. Instead, DMV Unlocked Wireless, the Washington, D.C., store that employs Buchon, stocks knockoffs and parts scrounged from discarded devices.

Independent repair shops and home tinkerers would have a much easier time if Apple provided them with parts, instructions and software. Legislation considered this year in 20 states would require manufacturers to do just that — but so far, the so-called right-to-repair measures have foundered against the fierce opposition of the tech industry.

The bills would apply to cellphones, tablets, farm equipment, appliances and any other products with software and computer chips. Some of the measures have been withdrawn, others are languishing in committees, and none has received a floor vote.

Lawmakers’ interest in the issue has grown since a few years ago, when only a handful of bills were introduced. But so has the opposition.

“We fully understand the desire of tinkerers, and do-it-yourselfers, to repair broken appliances and devices,” said Dusty Brighton, executive director of the Security Innovation Center, a coalition of tech companies that has opposed the measures. “[But] the electronics are highly integrated products, and repairs require training and accountability. Untrained repairs can compromise … safety, privacy and security.”

Brighton said tinkerers and amateur repairers could expose devices to hacks that might divulge personal information or increase the risk of fires.

But Maureen Mahoney, a policy analyst for Consumers Union, said manufacturers are “conjuring up safety risks” to sway legislators.

She noted that car companies made some of the same arguments several years ago, before Massachusetts voters in 2012 approved the first automotive right-to-repair law. Two years later, the auto industry signed a memorandum of understanding based on the Massachusetts law, under which new carmakers agreed to provide the same service information and tools to independent repair shops and franchised dealers across the country.

“It’s hard to think of a product that has more to do with safety than automobiles, and we haven’t seen safety problems with that,” Mahoney said. “It should be up to the consumers to decide who repairs their products.”

Intense Lobbying

New Hampshire state Rep. David Luneau, a Democrat, witnessed the vehemence of the opposition when his digital right-to-repair bill was considered in committee: Opponents wearing green and yellow John Deere T-shirts packed the hearing room. The farm equipment manufacturer opposes the bills because it fears its technology could be corrupted by amateur or untrained repairers.

“I look at it as a consumer protection bill,” Luneau said in a phone interview. “It provides the consumer with options on how to prolong the usefulness of equipment they buy. It takes away a little bit of industry control in terms of extending the life of a piece of equipment.” That makes it an environmental issue, too, he said.

John Deere responded to a Stateline inquiry with a statement from Ken Golden, director of global public relations. “John Deere supports the right to repair but not the right to modify,” he said. Customers can “maintain or repair” the product, he said, but they cannot have access to embedded software, which is designed to control emissions and safe operation.

“Allowing untrained individuals to modify equipment software can endanger operators, bystanders, dealers, mechanics, customers, and others and may result in equipment that no longer complies with industry and safety standards or environmental regulations.”

The committee is set to vote on Luneau’s bill in a couple of weeks, but state Rep. John Hunt, the panel’s highest-ranking Republican, said it is unlikely to pass. There are several arguments against the bill, not the least of which is that it could force companies to give away proprietary information, said Hunt, a former Apple dealer.

“If a consumer doesn’t like Apple, they can buy something else,” he said. “If New Hampshire were to pass this, do you think Apple would roll over and make this available? No. They would say they are not selling iPhones or computers in New Hampshire.”

Apple representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment. However, the company announced in August that if independent technicians nationwide take the company’s certification course, it will provide them with genuine parts and equipment to repair iPhones.

“When a repair is needed, a customer should have confidence the repair is done right,” the company said in a statement attributed to Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer.

In California, home to Silicon Valley, a proposed right-to-repair measure also has run into stiff headwinds. A hearing on the bill scheduled for this summer was postponed after tech companies raised strong objections, making it unlikely that the full legislature will act on it this year.

In a letter to California lawmakers, a coalition of tech industry groups said that providing information and parts to independent repair shops “without any contractual protections, requirements, or restrictions” would put consumers and their data at risk and put valuable intellectual property “in the hands of hundreds if not thousands of new entities.”

Nathan Proctor, campaign director for U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer group that supports the right-to-repair bill, said California could be a bellwether because it is the leading high-tech state and much of the tech media is based there.

Lower Prices

Fraz Khalid, who owns DMV Unlocked Wireless, said third-party suppliers usually catch up to new phones and parts within a month of their introduction by the manufacturers, and, he said, they are the same quality as genuine parts. “Everybody makes something,” he smiles, even the special screwdriver needed to open the iPhone 10.

Khalid said the problem with becoming an Apple-certified repairer is that it prohibits you from doing repairs on other kinds of phones. In addition, he said, his shop can perform repairs for about a third of the cost of a certified Apple repair. A screen repair for an out-of-warranty iPhone 8 costs $149 according to Apple’s website. Khalid’s store can do it for $60, using an “after-market” part.

It was concerns about cost and convenience — and a cracked laptop screen — that led Montana state Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, a Republican, to introduce a right-to-repair bill in his state this year.

“I was working on my computer trying to change out one of the screens,” he said. “And I was thinking, ‘Why do I have to send this out? We have guys around town that could do this.’”

But Fitzpatrick’s bill didn’t go anywhere during Montana’s short legislative session, the victim of more pressing priorities rather than outright opposition, he said. As for his own cracked screen, Fitzpatrick said he decided to get a new laptop rather than deal with the hassle of the Apple repair process. He readily admitted that he had nobody to blame but himself for the ruined screen.

“I left my computer outside a couple of times — I left it in the car,” he said. “It froze and thawed a couple of times, and then the screen cracked.”

Elaine S. Povich is a staff writer for Stateline.

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