The country’s first 'right to repair' bill has consumer advocates excited and electronics manufacturers incensed
By Kaveh Waddell
New Yorkers could soon gain unprecedented access to tools, parts, and manuals needed to fix electronics at home, or get them repaired at a local shop. That access would likely spill well beyond the Empire State, too, because the legislation proposing it would bring changes that can’t be contained to New York.
But the Digital Fair Repair Act, which sailed almost unanimously through the New York statehouse in June, is still waiting for Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature. And if she doesn’t sign it by the end of the year, the bill goes back to square one.
The proposal is the first major “right to repair” bill to pass a state legislature, aiming to reverse a trend of many consumer electronics getting harder and harder to fix when they break.
Manufacturers would have to make repair materials available to consumers and to independent shops on “fair and reasonable terms” for most electronics they sell in the state. Those materials could then circulate widely, consumer advocates say.
“Information that is on the internet is available worldwide in seconds,” says Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, which advocates for consumers’ right to fix and alter products they’ve purchased. “Parts and physical tools will easily be shipped anywhere in the world.”
For tinker-happy consumers, the law would mean you could order some replacement parts to be sent to your home, along with the specialized tools and detailed instructions you’d need to use them. But for most people, it means you’d have a much wider range of options when your electronics break, because independent stores could more easily get the parts, tools, and manuals they need for repairs.
“The law will help eliminate some of the barriers independent repair shops face, which will boost competition, lower prices, and improve quality across the repair sector,” says Aaron Perzanowski, a law professor at the University of Michigan and author of “The Right to Repair” (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
When New York lawmakers passed the Digital Fair Repair Act this summer, consumer advocacy groups, many of which have been pushing for right-to-repair legislation for years, celebrated widely. Advocates from Consumer Reports were among the bill’s boosters.
But electronics manufacturers and the trade associations that represent them aren’t happy. This summer, more than a dozen of those groups sent Hochul a letter urging her to veto the bill.
“So-called ‘right to repair’ bills would result in serious harm to New Yorkers’ privacy and safety by providing sensitive security information and equipment to anyone who wants it, regardless of whether they’ve been trained, certified, or vetted,” Dustin Brighton, executive director of the Repair Done Right Coalition, said in a statement to CR. “Legislating one-size-fits-all repair rules for manufacturers will compromise the safety and protections consumers expect, creating more issues than answers.”
But the bill’s authors argue that the industry’s safety concerns are overblown, because the proposal narrowly defines the information and tools that manufacturers need to make available.
Plus, they say, they’ve received a boost from the Federal Trade Commission, which wrote a letter in August congratulating the bill’s sponsor on passing the Digital Fair Repair Act. The FTC first waded into the right-to-repair debate in 2021 with a landmark report called Nixing the Fix, which argued that manufacturers make repairs too difficult and expensive, and shot down some industry arguments against right-to-repair legislation.
An FTC spokesperson declined to comment on the New York bill, and a spokesperson for Hochul said only that the governor is reviewing the legislation.
There’s certainly broad demand for easier, cheaper repairs. Consumers really want to fix their things when they break, but obstacles often hold them back, a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey found in December.
One-quarter of people who had a phone that broke set out to repair it but ended up replacing it, according to the survey. For many, it was because repairs were too expensive; others found it too inconvenient. Black Americans and low-income consumers were the most likely groups to say repairability is important to them.
In all, 84 percent of Americans believe manufacturers should be required to make repair information and parts available directly to consumers or independent repair shops.
Part of the problem is that buying new electronics often is expensive. A 2021 report (PDF) from U.S. PIRG, a consumer advocacy group, estimated that easy device repair could save an average family $330 every year.
Fixing a device also means it doesn’t get added to the staggering amount of electronic waste generated in the U.S. every year. Plus, producing new electronics often requires extracting rare natural resources, assembling devices in harmful labor conditions, and shipping the final product over long distances.
“New York’s fair repair law would give consumers new choices for fixing their devices, which can save them money, prevent waste, and help protect the environment,” says Nandita Sampath, a policy analyst at CR. “People should be able to fix the products they own.”
Even if the governor signs the bill this year—or if her office proposes specific changes and the legislature agrees—the new rules won’t go into effect for a year. And when that 12-month period is up, industry challenges could continue.
Louis Rossmann, a prominent repair advocate, says he expects New York’s law to be challenged in court. After all, an automotive repairability rule that passed in Massachusetts in 2020 is still held up because of a federal court case, more than two and a half years after voters approved it overwhelmingly.
And even if a lawsuit fails, manufacturers have plenty of ways to try to skirt the new requirements, Rossmann says. For instance, they could give the public access only to the limited tools they provide to authorized repair shops, rather than the much more expansive set available to “depot repair” shops that do more intensive fixes.
A Potential Chain Reaction
The New York bill, if passed, would be the first of its kind in the U.S., but dozens of other states have considered rules for repairability in recent years. Right-to-repair proposals in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Minnesota are in the works, potentially moving forward this year or in 2023.
“I think we will see a number of other states pass bills in the next year,” says Nathan Proctor, right-to-repair campaign director at U.S. PIRG, a consumer advocacy group. “There is a lot of support, and while no one tends to want to be the first, there are others who will want to join in now that the ice is broken.”
This summer, Colorado enacted a law that makes it easier to repair electric wheelchairs. New York’s bill excludes medical devices from its requirements, along with farm equipment, home appliances, and some other consumer electronics.
Advocates are pushing for bills that will cover more consumer goods in statehouses and in Congress, where lawmakers are considering bills that would make it easier to repair electronic devices, fix your own tractor, and access digital car-repair tools.
Last year, President Joe Biden asked the FTC to crack down on companies that were limiting repairs, and the FTC has gotten involved in helping state lawmakers—including in New York—craft repairability legislation.
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