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New York is considering legislation that could make it easier to repair your broken phone or laptop.
Right to repair laws — which have long struggled to get a foothold in statehouses around the country — promise to make it cheaper and easier for consumers to fix their digital devices, but critics decry the practice as a security and safety threat.
Now, with renewed attention from lawmakers and activists, New York could become the first state to make the right to repair a reality.
“This is a bill I think that the time is here for it,” said Russ Haven, general counsel for the New York Public Interest Research Group, which supports the legislation. “We’ve got a good coalition.”
The right to repair is a movement that seeks to require manufacturers of digital devices — like consumer electronics, tractors and medical equipment — to make available the parts, tools and knowledge necessary to repair products. Manufacturers often restrict these resources, making it difficult or impossible for consumers or third-party repair shops to fix their devices.
Right to repair advocates call manufacturers’ restrictions monopolistic since they allow companies to set prices for repairs without facing competition. And advocates have sought legislation to counter it.
The Digital Fair Repair Act — a right to repair bill — passed in the New York State Senate in June 2021, making it the first legislation of its kind to clear a state’s legislative body. But it still faces steep challenges before becoming law.
It sort of cuts across ideological lines. There’s people on the left and the right who agree about this one.
Russ Haven, general counsel for the New York Public Interest Research Group
Haven said the legislation had overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate, with 51 out of 63 senators voting in favor. He believes it could pass it again if another vote is required.
“It sort of cuts across ideological lines. There’s people on the left and the right who agree about this one,” he said.
But the State Assembly will be “a tougher nut to crack,” said Jeff Williams, the director of public policy at the New York Farm Bureau, which supports the legislation.
Part of what makes the right to repair movement unique — and what has enabled it to garner bipartisan backing — is its diverse base of supporters. The movement has united consumer rights activists, environmentalists, third-party repair shop owners, farmers and disability rights activists against tech companies that restrict repairs.
Most people learn about manufacturer-imposed barriers to repair after they break their phone or laptop, Haven and Williams said. But the barriers also impact technology that enables people to make a living or care for their health.
For example, the farmers Williams advocates for are greatly impacted, as they are often trained to repair their own equipment but are barred from doing so by software locks put in place by the manufacturer. Calling a certified technician to unlock these “digital keys” can cost farmers several days of work, Williams said.
That, in turn, can cost farmers thousands of dollars in lost crops, especially on critical planting or harvesting days, he said.
Right to repair faces steep opposition from powerful companies and the lobbying groups they support, said Kevin Purdy, a right to repair advocate with iFixit, an online repository of user-contributed schematics and repair guides. Manufacturers have succeeded multiple times in stifling right to repair legislation on the federal level and in statehouses across the country, he said.
These companies cite a number of concerns about letting consumers or third-party shops repair their products. Anti-right to repair lobbyists argue that allowing customers to crack open their devices will give an advantage to hackers or put the customers at risk. Providing schematics, many companies say, would also be a violation of their intellectual property rights.
A Federal Trade Commission report said some claims made by anti-right to repair activists are exaggerated, but companies’ concerns have been enough to dissuade lawmakers in the past.
The federal government has also taken action on the right to repair recently, with President Biden ordering the FTC to investigate whether repair restrictions violate antitrust rules.
Even with that federal action, Purdy said state-level legislation will likely have a greater impact.
“It’s pretty unlikely for the FTC to take on something as broad as every manufacturer of a good that offers a repair network,” he said. “Generally you need legislation to enact something that’s more broad like that.”
Purdy likened the digital right to repair legislation in New York to a 2012 Massachusetts referendum that forced automobile manufacturers to grant the right to repair to third-party mechanics nationwide.
The same thing, he said, could happen with digital technology: one state acts, and companies change their policies nationwide as a result.
New York, if it passes the Digital Fair Repair Act or something similar, could be at the forefront of a new repair economy, Purdy said.
Published on October 27, 2021 at 12:11 am
Contact Chris: [email protected]