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Last week, a judge ruled that the Massachusetts attorney general could begin enforcing a law — passed by ballot referendum in 2020 — requiring automakers to share information with consumers and independent repair shops that would allow them to fix busted cars. A week before that, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed a new law requiring manufacturers to provide the same information for a range of electronics, including home appliances. And back in April, Colorado legislators passed the first law ensuring that farmers can access what they need to fix their own tractors.
All three of these efforts have something in common: They’re part of the “right to repair” movement, a wide ranging campaign to ensure that you, or anyone else, can access the necessary information, tools, and parts needed to fix the stuff you purchase when it breaks.
The movement has been wracking up an impressive number of wins, having passed the aforementioned laws, as well as one in New York last year. In 2023, legislators in 29 states, from all parts of the political spectrum, introduced some form of right to repair legislation, covering everything from cell phones to powered wheelchairs to farm equipment to medical devices.
These campaigns are necessary because manufacturers, from Apple to John Deere to General Motors, are increasingly making it functionally impossible for consumers to fix their own devices themselves or to take them to an independent repair shop in their community. They accomplish this in a host of ways, including by refusing to share information, such as repair manuals or diagnostic software, refusing to provide replacement parts, or by locking devices so that they can only be accessed by the corporation’s own technicians.
Or manufacturers ensure their products are simply impossible to fix: Earbuds, apparently, are notorious for falling to bits if someone tries to open them up in order to repair them.
These restrictions accomplish a few goals for the corporations that push them. First, they drive repair-based profits, as they allow the corporations to monopolize the markets for repairs and spare parts, and thus charge whatever they like. Independent repair shops have a hard time accessing markets if they literally can’t get the parts or diagnostics necessary to fix a product.
But they also allow corporations to set the repair bar so high — either in hassle, time lost, or overall cost — that consumers don’t bother and simply buy a new product when any one aspect of their current one breaks. Think folks whose computer or cell phone battery goes wonky, and just end up buying an entirely new device.
These harms fall on everyone, but disproportionately affect lower-income people, who don’t have disposable income to buy a new device, often have more rigid work schedules that make it hard to get to an authorized repair shop, and are often more dependent on a single device than are higher-income households.
I hope it’s clear at this point that while repair restrictions may help the suits in the C-suite, they don’t help you, and they create needless waste as consumers junk products that are perfectly salvageable. And for farmers or small business owners who need to wait around while someone schleps out to their farm to fix a tractor or an ice cream machine or whatever, repair restrictions translate into real lost profits.
This problem even affects the military, and therefore the taxpaying public. As one Navy technician said, “most new equipment is under contract, and instead of being able to repair, we are required to contact a civilian technician and they have to come onboard to fix problems. This mean, when we are deployed, we are paying to fly someone thousands of miles, into warzones, to fix something that probably just needs a simple component replacement. It’s a nightmare.” That’s a much bigger cost to the public than simply allowing the technician on hand to find a fix.
While I’ve focused on legislative action at the state level to address repair restrictions, the federal government is also making moves. The Biden administration in 2021 signed an executive order on competition issues that directed the Federal Trade Commission to issue rules promoting right to repair. The FTC earlier that year issued a report not only detailing all the concerns raised by repair restrictions, but pushing back on several of the claims manufacturers make in order to defend those restrictions, finding “scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.” (That report is worth a read, if only to chuckle every time the FTC points out that manufacturers have no data to back up their sweeping claims.)
Right to right to repair bills have been floating around in Congress for a while, as well, and back in 1975, Congress approved a law saying that product warranties can’t be voided if a consumer uses an independent repair shop. So there’s plenty of interest in tackling this from a variety of government actors.
I’ve been pretty upbeat in this piece so far, but to be clear, corporate interests are not psyched about legislative action wrecking their repair monopolies or forcing them to change products to make them more repair-friendly, so they go all out to try and prevent these bills from moving.
New York’s law, for instance, was severely pared down at the last minute at the insistence of Gov. Kathy Hochul, after a big push from tech interests. Minnesota’s law included farm equipment, until it didn’t, along with medical devices and video game consoles. And obviously dozens of bills have not translated into a commensurate number of laws.
But things are still very much going in the right direction, which is a testament to those who are working on this issue, as well as the obvious political salience and common sense attributes of the right to repair campaign. At the end of the day, people just want to be able to fix their stuff.
This post initially appeared in a slightly different form on the author’s Substack, Boondoggle, on June 7, 2023.
Pat Garofalo is the director of state and local policy at the American Economic Liberties Project, and the author of The Billionaire Boondoggle: How Our Politicians Let Corporations and Bigwigs Steal Our Money and Jobs and the Boondoggle Newsletter.