Right to Repair Gains Momentum

image of two hands repairing a computer mother
A Computer and Laptop Repair Service Company in Hyderabad, Telangana. Vintechcomputerservices, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Legislative momentum is increasing with pressure from farmers, soldiers, the open source community, and independent repair shops for a Right to Repair devices and machines to make them easier and cheaper to repair, less likely to be tossed in a heap of e-waste. Device manufacturers from the technology, agriculture, and medical device industries oppose the idea.



(read more about Laura Norén)

The right to repair is a piece of legislation that aims to give consumers and other end users more power to either repair their own machines and devices or bring them to any number of independent repair shops where they can get affordable replacement parts. As it stands, many devices and machines - from tractors to iPhones to battlefield equipment - can only be repaired by technicians licensed by the original manufacturers or with parts available through exclusive manufacturer networks.

The current relationship between manufacturers and consumers results in a predictable array of long waits for service, higher prices, voided warranties, and device designs that all but require short replacement cycles, which in turn generate more hardware headed for the landfill. In other words, just as the software industry has realized that subscription models are much more lucrative than one-and-done software purchasing, the hardware industry is trying to build a more subscription-like relationship with consumers in which consumers end up paying manufacturers a large amount to purchase the item and then smaller ongoing amounts over time for maintenance and repair of the item.

In practical terms, the right to repair generally requires manufacturers to:

  • Provide manuals with detailed specifications, schematics, and software updates (all updates should be available to all owners, no subscription or fee required)
  • Allow devices to be repaired without voiding the warranty
  • Give small repair shops access to the same kinds of diagnostic tools and original parts that the original manufacturer has

History of Right to Repair - Auto Industry

The US auto industry has Right to Repair legislation already - the Motor Vehicle Owner’s Right to Repair. That’s why car owners can take their cars to small repair shops and have those repair shops run the same diagnostics and use the same parts as the dealership would. The first Right to Repair law was introduced by Joe Barton (R-TX) in 2003, followed by Lindsay Graham (R-SC) in 2004, again by Joe Barton in 2005, then by Edolphus Towns (D-NY-Brooklyn) in 2007 when it passed. A more contemporary version, granting wider access to diagnostic tools, was introduced by the late liberal Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) and his co-sponsor Mark Dayton (D-MN) in 2011 (careauto.orgCongress.gov), which passed. A similar bill passed in the Massachusetts State House in 2012 (MA Legislature, 2012).

Environmental Arguments - For and Against

Broken iPhones. Drapplesi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the early 2000s, Democrats opposed the Right to Repair, in part because there was an argument that the Right to Repair could allow consumers to thwart 1990 Clean Air Act protections related to emissions. There is no longer major Democratic opposition, but lobbyists opposing the Right to Repair continue to bring up risks related to cybersecurity and environmental protections as the main reasons any Right to Repair legislation would be net negative to the world.

It is not lost on this particular consumer that Volkswagen - a manufacturer! - admitted to installing a “defeat device” on 11 million vehicles to systematically cheat on emissions tests, which resulted in emissions that were 40 times higher than those allowed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (Hotten, 2015, BBC).

Current Right to Repair legislation covers much more than just the automotive industry. One of the main arguments in support of granting consumers and small businesses the right to repair a wide range devices and machines is that it will prolong their useful life span, reducing e-waste, and the energy costs associated with short device lifespans, also known as “planned obsolescence” (uspirg.org, 2020).

Support for Right to Repair is extremely diverse

An M-60 main battle tank moves down a road during a training exercise.

The types of people who support Right to Repair are extremely diverse. They include US Army service members because “restrictive licensing agreements signed by the Pentagon limit their ability to service their own equipment” (Mizokami, 2020). In a 2019 NYTimes op-ed Captain Elle Ekman bemoaned the huge additional expense and time costs associated with shipping equipment offsite or shipping manufacturer’s reps onsite, “I remembered working at a maintenance unit in Okinawa, Japan, watching as engines were packed up and shipped back to contractors in the United States for repairs because ‘that’s what the contract says.’ The process took months” (Ekman, 2019).

With the increasing sophistication of agricultural technology, farmers are also backing Right to Repair legislation so they can fix tractors in the field rather than a scenario in which, “three days and two service calls later, a simple matter,” was diagnosed that could have been addressed in under an hour if the tractor had been sold with the diagnostic software (Belz 2020).

Arguably, farmers and soldiers can make the best cases for needing to be able to diagnose and repair their machinery as soon as possible. Waiting days or weeks may result in death, lost missions, and crops molding or wilting in the field.

But the heat generated by the Right to Repair debate has been hottest when it impinges on makers of consumer devices such as  mobile phones, tablets, and laptops,  when waiting for repairs may be deeply inconvenient but is neither deadly nor representative of an entire season’s work at risk. Consumers and small repair shops want to be able to diagnose and fix the devices of our everyday lives without paying hefty subscription fees for diagnostic software, being demoted or outright restricted from accessing manufacturer-guaranteed parts, facing devices designed to be unrepairable, or voiding warranties for simple repairs that do not threaten the integrity of the device, its software, or any networks it may join.

A John Deere tractor plowing a field using a chisel plow somewhere in the USA. Jesster79, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Opposition comes from companies like (John) Deere and CompanyAppleMedtronic, and Caterpillar (uspirg, 2020). Farm industry lobbyist groups prefer to call the Right to Repair the “Right to Illegally Tamper” and have been writing opposition articles in trade publications such as equipmentworld.com (2020) and rurallifestyledealer.com (2020). Tech lobbyists have been more likely to go straight to the legislative audience and argue that Right to Repair legislation will weaken the country’s cybersecurity, threaten their ability to protect their intellectual property, and potentially remove consumer safety measures, an argument that has been particularly effective for medical devices, which have been bracketed out of proposed legislation in a number of states where it has been introduced.

Growing Support from FTC, White House

Neither the federal government nor any states have passed broad Right to Repair legislation yet, but the momentum is growing.  New Right to Repair legislation has been introduced in 27 states over the past several years, though 9 states limited the legislation to agricultural equipment (see map: uspirg.org 2021).

The Federal Trade Commission, with the support of President Joe Biden, issued a report outlining its support for Right to Repair legislation. While the FTC is not a rule-making body, it does enforce consumer protection law and voted unanimously to “ramp up law enforcement against repair restrictions that prevent small businesses, workers, consumers, and even government entities from fixing their own products“ (Potuck, 2021). With this federal support and growing awareness among the public, it is likely that at least one state will see passage of Right to Repair legislation this season. Minnesota, a blue state with a vocal farming population, virtually no presence from big tech, and a piece of legislation that brackets out any right to repair medical equipment (which protects Minnesota-based Medtronic), could be the first to enact the law. Massachusetts, long a leader in consumer protection law, could also see passage within the next 12 months.

Why does it matter to data science

Right to Repair is not a data science issue, but it does raise very important questions about balancing power, control, and risk between sophisticated companies, government agencies that may or may not be technically sophisticated, small businesses, and consumers who, again, may or may not be technically sophisticated.

Making it possible for many more people to intervene on increasingly complex, software-driven machines, devices, and processes raises many of the same questions that we would ask if we were talking about making more data freely available to the public. Yes, there will be a need to reconsider the integrity and security of these systems. That’s healthy and wise. Changing the defend and protect strategy so that it remains strong against the nature of changing threat landscapes is why security teams are large and ever present. The threats are always changing and there will always be a need to assess and reassess risk and risk mitigation.

But assuming that the general public is primarily accident-prone and/or actively nefarious is an incredibly impoverished, anti-democratic perspective. Figuring out how to share more responsibility and accountability with a broader group of people is the right conversation to have. It’s healthy. Our ecosystems of politico-material culture will be stronger, more innovative, more resilient, and less wasteful if it’s more possible to intervene upon technology and its data streams rather than reducing most of us to largely passive roles.

Watching the arguments that work and those that fail as Right to Repair legislation is debated, tabled, passed, amended, and otherwise made malleable to the vicissitudes of the political process will also be instructive for those concerned about future data protection, data sharing, and AI implementation regulation.

🔏 Expect Right to Repair legislation to have much broader support across the US than data protection legislation does, in part because the constituency supporting the legislation is more bipartisan, more geographically diverse, and in some ways deals with ideas that are easier to understand. Being able to repair devices quickly and cheaply has a much broader appeal than being able to prevent data from being collected about oneself by data brokers whose names and purposes will likely never be known.

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