It’s been a good year for right to repair advocates. Colorado passed an important law to allow wheelchair users access to resources they need to fix their own chairs. The Federal Trade Commission has stepped up enforcement of companies that limit the right to repair. And New York made history by passing the first broad consumer right to repair legislation at the end of 2022, requiring some digital electronics manufacturers to provide access to parts, tools, and information necessary for repairing their products.
Thank you to everyone who wrote in to support these bills, and especially to our allies in the Repair Coalition who lead this fight. Despite these wins, however, it’s important that those who care about the right to repair keep pushing to build on these steps. Because while there are many victories to celebrate, there is still a long way to go. And the hard-won fights for the steps forward we took have exposed just how much opposition there is to the basic idea that you should be able to tinker with your own stuff.
Take the New York law, for example. While it is indisputably a milestone, the law signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul took a huge step back from the version of the bill that had passed both houses of New York’s state legislature. It was significantly weakened at the last hurdle. Why? The Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) reported that TechNet, which represents tech industry groups, launched a targeted lobbying assault on New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, asking for her to veto the bill, to modify the bill, and exempt specific types of companies from being covered under it.
They succeeded in a few major ways. The bill passed by the legislature would have covered all digital electronics, such as phones, tablets, and IT equipment. The law, as modified by the governor, will only cover products made after July 1, 2023. It also walked back language from the bill passed by the legislature by excluding products sold under “business-to-government” or “business-to-business” contracts. That could mean that schools, hospitals, and other organizations that manage a lot of devices will not benefit from the law. There are also a couple of loopholes added to the law, such as one that allows companies to offer assemblies of parts rather than the individual parts. Manufacturers may see this as an invitation to circumvent the spirit of the law, by making consumers buy unnecessary bundles of parts rather than just the one they need.
Finally, the law also says companies don’t have to provide materials to bypass security features, which is an important step in the legitimate diagnosis and repair of electronic devices. This provision responds to debunked worries that allowing independent repairers to work on devices is a security risk. We’ve written before about why that’s nonsense. We urge lawmakers in other states who are looking at right to repair bills for 2023 not to fall into the same traps.
Companies know that the right to repair is popular, and the wins this year—especially in New York—show that advocates can rally people like you to tell lawmakers how important it is to the everyday person. Big firms are feeling the pressure. Microsoft, Apple, and even John Deere, which have all opposed the right to repair in the past, have bowed to pressure and made concessions.
Two things, however, show that we still need to push harder. First, voluntary company action is typically either done for public relations or is at best the product of compromise, and doesn’t address the problems people have. It can also come at a cost. For example, the John Deere right to repair agreement with the Farm Bureau doesn’t fix all of the issues farmers face and doesn’t do anything to foster competition for repair. It also contains a promise that, in exchange for these half-measures, the organization won’t support any right to repair legislation. Time will tell if John Deere follows up on its side of the deal this time.
Second, the incredible lobbying effort still mobilized against right to repair laws, as in New York, shows that companies will make public promises, but privately don’t want to be held to them. That’s why anyone who cares about the right to repair should take this year as a sign to keep on pushing. Your work is making a difference. We just have to keep going.