New Hampshire lawmakers have always been selective about adhering to our license plate slogan but they’ve rarely strayed farther from “Live Free or Die” than in their dismissal of the right-to-repair movement.
That loose coalition has been struggling for years against the increasing corporate practice of making it hard or impossible for individuals and independent shops to work on the objects we buy, forcing us to either pay them for repairs or just junk things and buy new ones.
Repair manuals and required software codes are kept secret, most notoriously by John Deere’s farm-equipment arm; special tools are required for no reason; and devices are designed entirely to interfere with repairs, such as Apple’s outrageous change to the latest iPhone that broke FaceTime if a non-licensed shop replaces a cracked screen.
You’d think Granite State lawmakers would fight back. They should embrace local control of the things we buy and put a “right to repair” into state law, ensuring that people are free to fix or improve our stuff – or break it if you’re a fumble-fingered doofus like me, but that’s the cost of liberty.
Instead, the Legislature has repeatedly bowed to claims that this would interfere with existing business models and, like virtually all American lawmakers, killed bills to make it even a little bit easier for people to work on things we’ve paid money to own. That’s not going to change in 2022 since no right-to-repair bills have been introduced and the GOP-dominated legislature shows no sign of listening to concerns like this.
So it was a pleasant surprise – shock, really – when one of the worst corporate offenders did a sudden 180 earlier this month. Apple, which had already taken back its broken-FaceTime decision in the face of public outrage, announced that it would sell spare parts and tools so people could do some repairs, and would also supply necessary documentation. It was the rough equivalent of PETA opening a chain of barbeque joints or Tesla supporting widespread bus ridership.
“This may or may not be of significant value to consumers, but it is enormously valuable to those of us supporting Right to Repair. It’s a giant cave. On the heels of Microsoft announcing they will be working towards more repairable product designs, its looking like we’re making big tech uncomfortable enough to take action,” is how Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, put it to me in an email. That group, at repair.org, is at the center of the movement.
“The important part is not the details, but that they had previously insisted that they were saving consumers from harm and cyber security by blocking repair. The FTC had already called ‘balderdash’ on that tactic and even if lobbyists continue to push the argument, its very clear that the argument doesn’t hold water. I think I recall much the same being stated in testimony in N.H.,” he wrote.
Indeed it was. Here’s how I put it in a 2019 article about a State House hearing on a right-to-repair bill that eventually died:
“If you want to be terrified about living in your own house, may I suggest you attend a legislative hearing about right-to-repair laws. … You will learn from industry representatives that you can be killed or maimed by your smoke alarm (if it fails), your refrigerator (if food spoils because the door-was-left-open alarm doesn’t work), your washing machine (if the lid lock is disabled and you fall inside), your cooking range (if heating controls go awry) and almost anything with a lithium-ion battery.”
It is, of course, true that letting people tinker with devices will produce some bad results, just like when you let people ride motorcycles without helmets. But that doesn’t seem enough of a reason to limit our freedom.
Increasingly these days, private corporations rather than our elected government are setting the pace for public action. I’m not a fan of that change but this might be an exception that proves the rule. If other companies follow Apple’s lead, lawmakers’ foot-dragging matters less.
But it still matters. Amid the celebration in right-to-repair land there’s a lot of wariness about Apple’s decision. Author Cory Doctorow put it this way: “They didn’t give ground because they see independent repair as a legitimate or desirable activity — they capitulated because open, declared war on repair was costing the company more than it extracted from monopoly repair price-gouging.”
If the spreadsheet calculation changes down the road, so will Apple’s decision. Enjoy it while you can.