The battle lines were drawn at a hearing in New Hampshire last week for a proposed right to repair law, with supporters calling for economic justice for consumers and opponents warning of crime and injury should the law pass.
Editor’s Note: Security Ledger supports right to repair legislation proposed in 16 states including New Hampshire. I was among those providing expert testimony in favor of the legislation at the hearing on Tuesday. You can read my remarks (or an approximation of them) here. What follows is my account of the hearing in the Granite State on Right to Repair.
There will be dark times in New Hampshire should the state pass a proposed right to repair bill into law. Curious children could find themselves dismembered by run-away washing machines. A phalanx of illegally modified lawn tractors and leaf blowers will belch pollution in defiance of the EPA, darkening the sky that inspired native son Robert Frost.
At least, that’s the scene painted by representatives from some of the U.S.’s biggest industry groups. At a hearing before the New Hampshire House of Representatives Committee on Commerce and Consumer Affairs February 5, they painted a dire picture of the consequences of passing a proposed Digital Fair Repair Act, HB 462, saying the proposed legislation would stifle commerce, leave New Hampshire consumers vulnerable to cyber crime and even physical harm at the hands of clueless owners and inexperienced or unethical repair professionals.
“There is a lot at stake when it comes to Right to Repair, and you could feel those stakes in the room,” wrote Nathan Proctor, the head of the right to repair campaign at the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), in an email statement. “Legislators have their work cut out for them sifting through all the frantic opposition and their deceptive, and at times bizarre, arguments,” he wrote.
A Modest Proposal
HB 462 would require original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that do business in New Hampshire to make the same documentation, parts and tools available to device owners and independent repair professionals as they make available to their licensed or “authorized” repair professionals.
Similarly, documentation, tools, and parts needed to reset product (software) locks or digital right management functions following maintenance and repair would also need to be made available to owners and independent repair professionals on “fair and reasonable terms.”
Sponsored by NH Rep. David Luneau (NH-10), an MIT graduate with degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, the bill is similar in scope to right to repair bills filed in 16 other states, from Massachusetts to Hawaii: seeking to cement the right of owners to service and repair their own property and to prevent device manufacturers from creating repair monopolies for everything from smart phones to farm equipment.
Those speaking in favor of the law included Brian Clark, the co-owner and Chief Technology Officer at the iGuys’ Tech Shop in North Conway, New Hampshire, an independent repair shop that repairs Apple phones, tablets and computers.
Addressing members of the committee, Clark said that Apple uses software based restrictions and restricts access to parts, preventing him from performing inexpensive repairs and pushing consumers towards more expensive, unnecessary repairs. For example: he noted that Apple has used software locks to prevent independent repair shops from replacing broken home buttons on iPhones. While the buttons are a $5 to $10 part, customers with non-functioning home buttons instead have to replace their entire screen, at a cost of more than $100, he said.
Similarly, Apple refuses to support or provide parts for older model phones that are still functional and useful, pushing consumers to expensive and unneeded phone upgrades.
Industry Lobbyists Paint Dark Picture
But representatives from a wide range of industries were there to oppose the legislation. They included the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, wireless industry group CTIA, TechNet, the technology industry lobby, the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) and more.
Their message: repairs performed by the owners of lawn equipment, electronics and home appliances or independent repair professionals carry serious economic, safety and security risks.
Christina Fisher, the Executive Director for Massachusetts and the Northeast at technology industry lobby TechNet said the right to repair bill was “legislation in search of a problem” and noted that previous attempts to pass the legislation in other states have been unsuccessful (omitting, however, that few if any have made it out of committee).
While smart phone repairs are one thing, home security and other smart devices make repair a “life or death” issue, she warned, adding that New Hampshire would be branded an “anti competitive” state if it passed the law.
Sarah Pierce, the Director of Government Relations at the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) warned committee members darkly that right to repair could risk life and limb. Appliance repair men and women “enter private homes,” she noted, suggesting that independent repair shops might fail to “vet” employees who might, in turn, harm homeowners and occupants.
Runaway appliances are another threat, Pierce suggested. Clothes washers, she explained, used software to disable the spin cycle when a safety latch on the washer lid was opened. Owners or independent repair technicians could disable that, leading to injury or death for curious children. Pierce warned of everything from flaming coffee pots to spoiled food could be the result if manufacturers made diagnostic tools and service manuals available to the public.
“These are very serious issues,” she said.
Repair advocates said that the response in New Hampshire was typical to what legislators are facing in other states considering right to repair laws.
Nathan Proctor of US PIRG said the issue was one of economic justice for consumers, who will benefit greatly from competition for device repair in the form of lower prices and more choices.
He warned representatives not to be fooled by industry arguments, saying that laws against piracy, unsafe products and polluting the air already exist and are enforced by federal or state authorities.
“We don’t need to deputize manufacturers to enforce environmental or anti-piracy laws,” he said.
“There is the same opposition, same arguments, and often the same lobbyists at all of these hearings,” wrote Gay Gordon-Byrne, Executive Director of the Repair Association in an email. “The larger problem is not the lobbyist testimony at hearings, which are often laughable, but the behind the scenes damage done by opposition.”
Last year, industry groups and their lobbyists parlayed money and access to legislators to defeat right to repair bills in 17 states, most while still in committee.
“We cannot begin to go toe-to-toe with big money and never intended to try,” Gordon-Byrne said. “Our power lies in the value of Right to Repair to constituents.”
“The way forward is the same as how we got to this far,” said Proctor of US PIRG. “Lawmakers need to hear from constituents who are sick of being forced to buy new things instead of fixing what we already have.”