Right to repair movement gains power in US and Europe

By Cody Godwin
BBC News, San Francisco

John Deere tractorImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
There is growing rage among farmers in the US they cannot repair their own equipment, such as tractors

There is growing pressure on manufacturers around the world to allow consumers the right to repair their own devices.

The UK has introduced right-to-repair rules that legally require manufacturers to make spare parts available to people buying electrical appliances.

The European Commission has announced plans for right-to-repair rules for smartphones, tablets and laptops.

And later this week, US President Joe Biden is expected to sign an executive order asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to draw up rules on the repair of farming equipment.

'Safety risk'

It would give farmers "the right to repair their own equipment how they like", the president's press secretary, Jen Psaki, said.

And some expect the rules to go further and take in consumer electronic devices such as phones or game consoles.

Tractor manufacturer John Deere is among those who opposed the idea, saying it posed a safety risk.

It has also been opposed by technology giants such as Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, which impose limits on who can repair phones and game consoles and say independent repair could affect the security and safety of devices.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Device manufacturers say independent repair without oversight could lead to security and safety issues

Most of the 50 US states proposed a right-to-repair bill in 2021 - but only one, Massachusetts, has made it law.

Passed in 2013, the Massachusetts legislation requires vehicle manufacturers to provide diagnostic and repair information to owners and independent repair facilities for any car made in 2015 or later.

As a result, most carmakers agreed to apply this rule across the US, even without it being a requirement in the remaining 49 states.

But in June, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and others, started a legal bid to block revisions to the law that would require expanded access to mechanical and electronic repair data.

Opening up data could create a major cyber-security risk to vehicles, it said.

And putting information about car parts in a centralised location would provide a target for attackers.

Media caption,

Should devices be easier to fix?

The focus of the right-to-repair movement varies by state, with places such as Florida and South Carolina concentrating on agriculture-related legislation, while California's is concerned with medical equipment.

Some companies have said sharing information will violate their intellectual property (IP).

But the FTC appeared to dismiss those concerns in a report, which concluded: "The assertion of IP rights does not appear to be a significant impediment to independent repair."

Other companies also cite safety as an issue, saying consumers or independent repair workers could be injured "fixing a product or using an improperly repaired product".

The 2021 legislative session is over in most of the states, which means many of the proposed bills will not become law.

But in New York, the proposed Fair Repair Act, which requires manufactures to make diagnostic and repair information of any product available, passed the state's senate.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
There are a growing number of ways to fix devices independently of the manufacturers

It made its way to the state's assembly on the final day of the session but will not be voted on until after it reconvenes, in January 2022.

If it votes in favour, the legislation will arrive on Governor Andrew Cuomo's desk, where he will either veto it or pass it into law.

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It is likely some states will reintroduce new legislation in the next session.

California has introduced different variations of right to repair over the past few years, though with the state being home to many big technology companies - including Apple, Google and Tesla, all of whom are opposed to the legislation - it faces an uphill struggle.

And advocates such as iFixit founder Kyle Wiens expect it to take "a number of years" for the legislation to pass.

Large manufacturers and companies "donate a lot of money to politicians, and leadership will kill a bill," he told BBC News.

"In other situations, it's just it's hard to get legislation passed."

But Mr Wiens expects the FTC's intervention to be a major catalyst for movement next year.

"Access to the knowledge of how to repair things is a fundamental human right," he said.

Paint it pink

Many companies offer only repairs themselves or through authorised retailers, which can be costly and time-consuming.

Meanwhile, companies such as iFixit supply parts, tools and instructions to fix thousands of items, while YouTubers and Reddit communities help others get the most out of their devices by answering questions or giving advice on repairs.

And it is not just the access to the information these groups are fighting for.

They believe it is better for the economy and the environment if they can increase the lifespan of their devices by doing a simple fix such as replacing the battery in a laptop or a broken screen on a mobile instead of buying an entirely new device.

But for many of those in favour of the right to repair, it comes down to a simple fact - they paid for the device and should be able to do what they want with it.

"They sold it to me, it's mine. They took my money, they didn't have to take my money," Mr Wiens told BBC News.

"I can take it apart and fix it if I want. If I want to throw it in the river, if I want to paint it pink, I can do that."