Battle lines clear in digital repair fight

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – The average Massachusetts family could save $330 a year if they could fix electronics rather than replace them, adding up to an estimated $875 million in annual savings for Bay State consumers, supporters of the digital right to repair movement said Monday.

The savings would flow if people got their smartphone, laptop, tablet, gaming console, or other electronic device repaired to extend the lifespan by 50 percent, Janet Domenitz of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group told lawmakers Monday as she testified in support of legislation (H 341 / S 166) that would require the makers of digital electronics and other products to make diagnostic repair tools and information available to product owners and independent repair shops.

“Manufacturers of everything from phones to appliances to tractors intentionally make things difficult to repair, limiting repair to just their branded providers if they let anyone fix it at all,” Domenitz told the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure. “Manufacturers aggressively lock out repairs to either force us to go back to them or buy the newest version. The result is surging repair costs and a massive amount of waste.”

MASSPIRG issued a report in July that found each American family disposes of an average of 176 pounds of electronic waste a year — waste that the group says largely could be avoided if access to digital repair information was mandated.

Opponents, who ranged Monday from trade organizations representing video game manufacturers to agricultural equipment dealers, countered that their increasingly complicated technology should only be handled by people trained to properly repair it and that most manufacturers already provide product repair and support.

“While John Deere equipment has become more sophisticated, Deere supports the customer’s right to repair and has built advanced diagnostic capabilities into our equipment that are available to the owner, dealers, or even state legislators like you,” Daniel Carson, corporate sales director of the John Deere dealership group United Construction and Forestry, said. “John Deere provides subscription access to Customer Service Advisor, which is a specialized diagnostic tool similar to the tools our technicians use to support our customers. Customer Service Advisor allows the equipment owner — the equipment owner — to do 95 percent of the repairs we do at a dealership.”

John Keane from the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers told lawmakers that it could be dangerous to expand the pool of people who can fix things in people’s homes.

“Improper repairs could lead to significant property damage, including wrongly splicing wires posing a fire hazard to the consumer and using the wrong refrigerants which could cause irreparable damage to the product,” he said.

Alexander Castillo, who owns three independent repair shops across Massachusetts, told the committee that his shop in Boston does about 3,000 repairs a year. He said his customers generally choose to bring their devices to his shop rather than back to the manufacturer because his prices run about 50 percent cheaper and he can turn around a repair much faster than most manufacturers.

“Ninety percent of my customers, I think would rather repair their devices than getting a new [one]. I constantly receive repair customers with devices that we have the ability to extend their life … The only problem that we come across is on new devices, there’s not enough information for us to provide service, technically repair it — no schematics, no software,” Castillo said. “It’s been very hard, especially on new devices, for us to provide the service that we want to customers.”

Matthew Lenz, director of state government affairs for the Entertainment Software Association, told the committee that the organizations his group represents, including video game console makers like Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony, build in security features to block pirated games from working on their consoles.

Sharing hardware schematics, sensitive diagnostic information, tools and security-related reset codes with third parties “would compromise the security of the entire platform” and could harm the economy in Massachusetts, where there are more than 80 video game publishers, developers and hardware companies, he said.

“Every day, millions of Americans enjoy playing video games — me, myself, I’m a gamer — and the continued viability and success of the game console business is dependent upon a trustworthy and secure delivery platform. If platforms are compromised, which we believe they will be if this right to repair mandate is imposed, it will hurt game publishers, console makers and consumers’ trust in a protective and entertaining gameplay environment.”

Last session, the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure gave digital right to repair legislation (S 107) a favorable report, but the bill never emerged from the Senate Committee on Ways and Means in the final eight months of the session.

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