BOSTON (SHNS) – Buoyed by Senate support last year, consumer protection advocates are hopeful they can secure a law this session that would expand access to the parts and information necessary to repair, rather than replace, aging cellphones and tablets.
Supporters launched the latest push for “digital right to repair” legislation Thursday, voicing optimism that momentum is growing on Beacon Hill behind a movement to force major technology companies like Apple to ensure maintenance and upgrade services can be performed by users and small, local shops.
The latest bill (HD 3826 / SD 793) would require manufacturers of portable wireless devices to provide users and independent repair shops with access to parts, tools, diagnostics, firmware and manuals, information that supporters argue is often held tightly by the companies.
“Too many times, these big, gigantic corporations, they don’t want the local, independent repair shops to be able to repair things. They want to take advantage of you to keep your costs up,” said Sen. Michael Brady, a Brockton Democrat who filed the Senate bill. “A simple cellphone, for instance, which I own here, which as we know is very expensive to buy, yet it’s less expensive to throw these away and buy a new phone than getting a simple cellphone repair. Where do these phones end up? In landfills, and [they] end up hurting our environment.”
The bill largely mirrors language the Senate quietly adopted in July, via a Sen. William Brownsberger amendment that got rolled into a larger amendment bundle. House and Senate negotiators dropped the digital right to repair provision from the sweeping economic development bill that emerged and became law in November.
“We knew that we had the support to do that much, and so we made a decision just to start from there,” said Nathan Proctor, national right to repair campaign director for the Public Interest Research Group. “We’re keeping it there because we know that we have the votes for that. It’s just a question of: can we get it across the finish line after getting so close last session?”
The Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee favorably reported a wider-ranging version of the bill last session, before the Senate folded narrower language into its economic development bill. That panel, which will be led this session by returning chair Rep. Tackey Chan of Quincy and new chair Sen. John Cronin of Lunenburg, looms as a likely destination for the latest revised legislation.
Supporters said Thursday that the latest push is a bit narrower than the standalone bill they backed last session, focusing mostly on cellphones and tablets.
Personal electronic devices have evolved into a ubiquitous facet of modern life, and advocates argue that the major companies that manufacture them have widely embraced a strategy of “planned obsolescence” by limiting access to parts and diagnostic information, in turn funneling consumers toward more frequently purchasing new products rather than maintaining the ones they already own.
In a report published last week, MASSPIRG graded most major electronic manufacturers on “repairability” of their products by using data from France, which they say already has “right to repair” laws in place. The advocacy group gave Apple and Google, two major cellphone manufacturers, D grades for the ease of repairing their devices, while awarding Samsung a C and Motorola a B.
“All these scores would be B’s and A’s if we pass this legislation, which is what consumers deserve,” Proctor said.
David Webb, the owner of Hamilton Computer Repair in Worcester, held up two Apple-manufactured laptops during Thursday’s event to make the case about the challenges of repairing modern technology (though the legislation aims mostly at cellphones and tablets and not laptops).
The older model, he said, requires only a coin like a quarter to remove and replace its battery, while the newer machine’s battery is secured with glue, uses a proprietary drive that cannot be replaced by a third-party option and has its memory installed on a single main board, “meaning it would have to be replaced to be upgraded.”
Webb said he and his staff have the technical skill for many repairs and upgrades but often find themselves hamstrung by a manufacturer’s exclusivity contracts and use of proprietary products.
“Manufacturers have no incentive to make durable, good, maintainable products. They have realized long ago that it is better to lock us in with various subscription models, and other industries are systematically cashing in on planned obsolescence,” he said. “Right to repair is good for the economy, it’s great for consumers, it’s obviously great for the environment. The only real arguments against this are that some large corporations are going to have to adjust their business models to make quality products, and that’s exactly why we need this legislation.”
Last session’s broader version of the bill drew opposition from video game manufacturers, agricultural equipment dealers and a range of other interests who argued that as technology becomes more complicated, only workers specially trained to repair it should be tasked with those duties.
Opponents have also warned that requiring companies to share diagnostic information and other specific details could pose a security risk for the device’s user.
Proctor said bills are pending in many other states but that only New York has a law in place covering the range of devices targeted in the latest legislation on Beacon Hill.