Your right to repair: How COVID sent businesses, hospitals, and consumers to the breaking point

People are spending a lot more time at home, using their products, and stuff is breaking down.

Right now, when the speaker in your iPhone stops working or a memory stick in your laptop malfunctions, you're often left with one option: Take it to an authorized service center and pay for someone else to repair it for you. It's costly, expensive, and something that needs to change. But as right to repair legislation is gaining popularity across the country, that change may happen sooner than later. 

It's hard for me to remember when I performed a repair on anything. It probably was a PC upgrade on one of my desktop systems. But it's been a decade or more since I've been able to fix a laptop computer and swap or replace a major component, let alone repair a mobile device.

What is the right to repair?

Right to repair is a movement for establishing government legislation intended to allow consumers and businesses to repair and modify their own consumer and commercial devices and equipment. This is in response to the age-old practice of manufacturers requiring the consumer or business to use its offered services. It also advocates and is pushing for companies to provide service manuals so that individuals or any small repair shop has the information needed to perform the repairs.

While this is a problem globally, the primary debate over the issue has been centered in the US and European countries. So, for example, when you damage your smartphone, Apple and Samsung (and many other companies) may require the use of their authorized service centers to repair their phones; otherwise, they won't honor warranty claims. In some instances, they might disable the devices or issue scary messages indicating the warranty is invalidated when third-party parts are installed.

The origins of right to repair

Right to repair applies to all sorts of things, including farm equipment, hospital equipment, computers, and -- the area where this movement started -- automobiles and other vehicles. In 2012, Massachusetts passed the first right to repair law that requires motor vehicle manufacturers to provide the necessary documents to repair their cars. 

Currently, John Deere is under examination because farmers are experiencing issues with their tractors where the farm vehicles won't start unless a technician clears out error codes. The company said that it would provide the necessary equipment and documentation to farmers needed by 2021. It didn't come through with its promises, and now, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, Vermont, South Carolina, and Missouri are looking to put right to repair laws in place that will force them to do this, and the list is growing by the week.

In addition to John Deere, Tesla is under the microscope because it's nearly impossible to repair a Tesla vehicle by yourself, as there's no way to order parts from it officially, and its services manuals are extremely expensive to access. The other diagnostic equipment and software required to be a service center are also costly. There is also a vetting and certification process involved, so your local mechanic cannot suddenly decide to be a Tesla service provider. 

In 2020, Massachusetts had to pass additional laws to remove loopholes that allowed it to bypass the original 2012 law. The new law requires manufacturers to support an open-data platform by the year 2022. Any car owner and repair shop would be able to access it via mobile apps or other means to get the same information that certified repairpersons use.

Right to repair laws under consideration

Much of the legislation is about medical equipment because, in states like California, during COVID-19, hospitals were in desperate shape. Patients, of course, need ventilators to survive, and there weren't enough to go around. If one happened to break down, it required a technician employed by the medical device manufacturer to repair it, and in-house staff couldn't do simple repairs to life-saving devices. There are now two legislation pieces for medical equipment under consideration for California and Hawaii: SB 605 and SB 760. Texas has also introduced a similar medical equipment bill: HB 2541.

Half the states in the US now have right to repair bills under consideration:

  1. Arkansas - SB 461 (farm equipment) 
  2. California - SB 605 (medical equipment) 
  3. Connecticut - HB 5255 and HB 5826 (all non-car devices), and HB 6216 (cars)
  4. Colorado - HB 1199 (all non-car and non-medical equipment, though includes class 2 wheelchairs)
  5. Delaware - HB22 (all non-car devices)
  6. Florida -  S 374 and  H 0511 (farm equipment)
  7. Hawaii - SB 760 (medical equipment), SB 564 (all non-car devices), HB415 (consumer products), HB 226 (all non-car devices) 
  8. Illinois - HB 3061 (all non-car devices)
  9. Kansas - HB 2309 (farm equipment) 
  10. Maryland - SB 412 and HB 84 (all non-car devices) 
  11. Massachusetts - HD 260 and SD 199 (all non-car and non-medical equipment)
  12. Missouri - HB975 (farm equipment), HB 1118 (all non-car devices) 
  13. Minnesota - HF 1156 (all non-car and non-medical equipment)
  14. Montana HB 175 (all non-car and non-medical equipment) and HB 390 and SB 273 (farm equipment) 
  15. Nebraska - LB543 (farm equipment) 
  16. Nevada - AB 221 (all non-car devices)
  17. New Jersey - A 1482 (all non-car devices) A 2906 (farm equipment) 
  18. New Hampshire - HB449 (home appliances)
  19. New York - S04104 (all non-car and non-medical equipment) S149 (farm equipment)
  20. Oklahoma - HB1011 (all non-car devices)
  21. Oregon - HB 2698 (all non-car and non-medical equipment)
  22. South Carolina - H 3500 (farm equipment)
  23. Texas - HB 2541 (medical equipment)
  24. Vermont - H.58 and S.67 (farm equipment) 
  25. Washington - HB 1212 (consumer devices)

The pandemic has driven a lot of this because people are spending more time at home, using their products, and stuff is breaking down. 

Will it get easier to fix things?

As a result of all this impending legislation, the hope is that the benefits of the new laws also trickle down to the average consumer. It's not just a "right" to repair; it's an "ability" to repair. The prospect of opening up a device like a smartphone, a current-generation Mac or PC laptop, or an IoT box scares many consumers, even if they have access to the parts network and the proper documentation.

The iFixit videos have shown that you need precision tools (and precision nerve) to perform simple component replacements for many of these products. Hopefully, with the introduction of this kind of legislation in various states, it will allow more places to enter the repair and services businesses. It will give them access to parts networks and enable more things to get fixed.

The best way users can enforce change is to call or email their representatives directly. Tell them you support a right to repair bill, and you want to fix your stuff -- whether it is a Tesla, a tractor, or an iPhone. 

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