State and federal lawmakers are increasingly moving toward policies to give consumers the right to acquire the parts and tools to repair their own phones, cars, and tractors without needing to involve the manufacturer.
Lawmakers and grassroots activists have spent several years lobbying for the “right to repair,” a legal right related to manufacturing and technology that ensures consumers can acquire the parts and knowledge necessary to repair their devices, starting with cars but also including iPhones, farmers implements, computers, and every piece of electronic equipment in between.
“When people hear about the right to repair, they say, ‘Oh my God, my dishwasher was broken and I couldn’t get it fixed. My cellphone was broken and it cost me an arm and a leg,” Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, told the Washington Examiner. “And it’s very popular from that standpoint because everybody needs to get their stuff fixed.” The Repair Association has assisted multiple states in introducing pro-right-to-repair legislation.
What is right to repair?
Right-to-repair advocates argue that the policy is needed because it ensures that a company like Apple or John Deere does not completely control the repair of devices. For example, repairing an iPhone screen may require a unique tool. That tool may be specially designed by Apple and only provided to its engineers or companies with which it had a relationship. If the right-to-repair law is passed, Apple would be required to make the tool and instructions available to anyone who desires it.
The idea has critics. Right-to-repair laws “essentially attempt to provide a solution without defining or measuring a problem,” Alex Reinauer, a research fellow at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, told the Washington Examiner. “This is economic regulation.”
Reinauer argued that the right to repair is unneeded because there is already a healthy competitive market for product repairs. The legislation isn’t one providing an answer to a problem but rather a form of “antitrust legislation,” Reinauer said. He also said that additional rules will increase the cost for the average user.
State lawmakers began to introduce right-to-repair bills in the 2000s after several manufacturers began adopting practices that made acquiring automotive replacement parts difficult to acquire by restricting access. The first law was passed in Massachusetts in 2012, requiring automakers to sell the same service parts and diagnostics directly to consumers or mechanics as they did to dealerships. The 2012 law was then used as a starting draft to create similar legislation in other states, Gordon-Byrne said.
Right-to-repair legislative efforts have multiplied. Forty-five out of 50 state legislatures considered some form of legislation in 2023, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, only New York and Minnesota have enacted legislation approving a right to repair. California’s legislature unanimously approved SB 244, the state’s version of right to repair, on Sept. 13 and is waiting on Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) to sign it.
The passage in California of a right-to-repair bill is notable because the state is home to several Big Tech companies, which will be forced to comply in some form. The state also has a history of setting technology policy trends and setting a path for others to follow. Also, the California bill has the backing of Apple, which sent a letter to California lawmakers in August stating its intent to back the law because it included privacy and copyright amendments. Apple previously opposed the right to repair but has taken small actions to reverse its position as legal pressure grew. For example, Apple expanded its self-repair programs in 2022 to allow users to buy parts and seek replacements quickly.
At the federal level, Congress has taken first steps toward passing the law. House members introduced the Saving Money on Auto Repair Transportation Act and the Right to Equitable and Professional Auto Industry Repair Act. The SMART Act would limit how long car manufacturers can restrict car part patents so alternate part makers can make alternatives, while the REPAIR Act requires automakers to provide direct in-vehicle data to maintenance specialists so they can efficiently fix the vehicle and understand what is going on within the car.
President Joe Biden issued an executive order in July 2021 that encouraged the Federal Trade Commission to issue rules against anti-competitive practices involving independent repair shops and part suppliers.
The FTC ramped up its enforcement efforts in the following months and announced that it was taking three right-to-repair cases in 2022, including complaints against Harley-Davidson and the grill maker Weber.
A slow reversal
Apple is not alone in its reversing its position on the right to repair. Microsoft stated in May 2023 that it affirmed support for a right-to-repair bill in Washington.
John Deere, a longtime opponent to the right to repair, signed a memorandum with the American Farm Bureau in January to ensure that the agriculture industry has the resources required to repair farming equipment in a timely manner without sending the product back.
The Automotive Service Association, the Society of Collision Repair Specialists, and the Alliance for Automotive Innovation sent a letter to Congress in July declaring that they have reached a “memorandum of understanding” on the right to repair. The memorandum included a commitment to provide auto repair shops the data, tools, and information necessary to fix the vehicles. Some right-to-repair advocates are critical of the agreement, noting that the memorandum also failed to provide those tools to individual users.