In-brief: After legislation in five states stalled in the Spring, states like Massachusetts will be on the front line of renewed efforts to pass pro-consumer laws that create a “right to repair” for cell phones, medical devices and other software-driven products. At stake could be the right of consumers to control Internet of Things devices they purchase for use in their home, on their person or in their business.
Massachusetts, which passed the nation’s first ‘right to repair’ bill in 2012 is set to be on the front lines again this fall, as advocates and lawmakers seek to extend a narrow, pro-consumer provision applying to the servicing of automobiles to encompass a much larger universe of mobile phones, connected “smart” products and even medical devices.
After similar legislation failed to make it out of committee last session, a joint committee of the Massachusetts state legislature will take up two bills in its fall session that seek to expand the Bay State’s first-in-the-nation Right to Repair bill, and experts on both sides expect a pitched battle as consumer advocates square off against the likes of Apple Computer, which hopes to curtail the ability of independent technicians and repair people to service their products.
House Bill 143 and Senate Bill 96 will be taken up by the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure and will have a public hearing in the fall, according to Stephanie Fleming, the Staff Director for Massachusetts State Representative Claire D. Cronin, who sponsored the House legislation. “There is a lot of public support for this consumer rights bill and we are looking forward to the hearing and public debate on the issue,” Fleming said in an e-mail message.
That hearing could come as early as September, according to one source with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be named. However, no hearing on the right to repair bills is currently listed on the schedule for the Joint Committee. And, while there is public support for it in the Bay State, there is also industry opposition. Among those known to be mobilizing in opposition to the right to repair bill in Massachusetts are the Advanced Medical Technology Association, the Consumer Electronics Association, as well as the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA).
The two bills are similar and extend the same rights available to car owners and independent auto repair shops to a wide range of other product owners and repair outfits. Namely: manufacturers are required to make “the same diagnostic and repair information” they give to authorized repair providers available to both owners and independent repair providers. That includes information such as diagnostic software and codes, passwords, technical updates and documentation -all free of charge.
The proposed law also requires that owners and independent repair shops have access to service parts and updates for purchase “on fair and reasonable terms.” So too diagnostic repair tools that they make available to the manufacturer’s own repair or engineering staff, authorized repair providers, and so on at a fair and reasonable price.
“We think this is an issue that applies to all products, not just cars,” said Kyle Wiens of iFixIt.org and repair.org. The bill would cover Internet of Things devices, cell phones, farming and medical equipment, he said. “It’s a fundamental question of who has control of a product? Is it the product’s owner that controls it, or is it the original manufacturer,” he told The Security Ledger.
Wiens and repair.org were in Boston in August at the National Conference of State Legislatures in early August, where he got to know attendees by manning an iPhone repair booth on the conference floor: replacing broken iPhone glass screens and other components as a way to underscore the kinds of basic services that companies like Apple wish to control. Wiens said that the absence of a clear-cut right to repair already limits what kinds of services he can offer. For example: he wasn’t able to help legislators in attendance who had broken Android phones.
“None of the phone manufacturers sell parts to the aftermarket,” Wiens said. “The only reason the iPhone repair market is viable is because there are aftermarket parts available from outside factories, but that’s not the case with a lot of the other Android products,” he said. “If you go to repair shops, they’ll fix iPhones and nothing else, and that’s substantially due to a lack of parts and information.”
Even parts as simple as replacement batteries are often unavailable, prompting device owners to scrap their hardware and upgrade rather than making simple repairs. He hopes expanded right to repair in Massachusetts and other states will help boost the market for aftermarket parts and repairs, literally creating an industry where one does not exist – not for lack of demand, but for lack of supplies.
As more and more categories of formerly mechanical devices have come to be managed through software, the potential down-side of overly restrictive software licensing agreements have become evident in industries like agriculture. There, companies like John Deere have strictly limited access to critical tools like the company’s Service Advisor Software to John Deere technicians and licensed repair shops. That prevents farmers from servicing a wide range of problems with tractors, harvesters and other critical equipment, not for lack of skill but for lack of parts and permission from the manufacturer.
The restrictions – often claimed under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (or DMCA) – have spurred a market for older model equipment and black market firmware throughout the U.S.’s agricultural heartland. The web site Motherboard reported in March that U.S. Farmers are going to online black markets: paying for versions of John Deere’s diagnostic software and other management tools that have been stripped of the copyright controls.
Wiens said there are other issues as well, such as proposals by John Deere to monetize data collected from their connected equipment by selling it to agri-businesses like seed-maker Monsanto. “There’s a lot you can learn about the farm from the telemetry,” he said. “You can plot soil density maps if you know the RPM and GPS data,” he said. Such concerns had made data privacy and right to repair the two, top technology related issues for farmers right now.
Binseng Wang, an MIT-trained technologist who has worked as a quality assurance professional in the medical device field, said that agricultural equipment is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a growing need to clarify the right to repair in the medical field, as well. “Medical equipment is becoming very much like the rest of the universe of equipment we have in our daily lives,” he told The Security Ledger. “A large majority now have embedded electronics in them. The challenge is that repair of them requires significant information that the manufacturers are very reluctant to release.”
Those increasingly draconian restrictions prompted proposals for right to repair legislation in five states in the last legislative session: Nebraska, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Kansas and Wyoming. Most are broad in scope, though the Wyoming legislation would only govern agricultural equipment. Legislators in the EU have also proposed a right to repair for that market that would target the planned obsolescence of consumer electronics devices and software.
Still, none of the legislation proposed in the five states became law, with most shelved or tied up in committee due to industry opposition. In a statement to Security Ledger, Preston Grisham, the Senior Manager for Public Policy Communications at CompTIA said the organization believes that every consumer has the right to repair “any technology product they purchase.” However, laws need to strike a balance, he said, warning of “inadequately trained repair professionals” or unscrupulous behavior “that could lead to widespread privacy and security implications for millions.”
Wiens said his group isn’t disappointed and believes all five states will reintroduce the right to repair bills next year. “There’s a wide level of interest,” he said. And support is bipartisan, with Democrats in the US mostly interested in the environmental and consumer rights aspects of right to repair laws and Republicans focused on small business and job creation.
That sets the stage for a fresh contest this fall, with states like Massachusetts at the forefront. Wiens said he and his group will be back to make their case. “It seems to be clear that we’re going to be more secure if product owners have their own tools.” He says that the advent of the Internet of Things may prompt movement from recalcitrant lawmakers wary of provoking powerful interests. “With the Internet of Things, things get complicated, he said. Too tight content controls on product simply limits the population of professionals available to help ordinary consumers. “People need help. They’re not going to be able to sort these things out by themselves.”