New CEI Paper Outlines Problems with “Right to Repair” Legislation

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At least 20 states have filed or refiled “right to repair” legislation since the start of the new year. Two states passed right to repair laws in 2022. Colorado passed a bill narrowly targeting powered wheelchairs, and New York passed a proposal that would more generally apply to personal electronic devices like smartphones and personal computers.

Both laws are variants of the Model State Right-to-Repair Law, also called the Digital Right to Repair Act. The legislation is advocated for by the Repair Association, a coalition of repair enthusiast and consumer advocates. Over the last decade, nearly 200 versions of the model legislation have been introduced in state legislatures that would force manufacturers to sell parts, tools, and diagnostic information to independent repair providers.

In a new CEI paper, I explain a few problems with the model legislation. Namely, it would raise prices for consumers, disincentivize innovation, and undermine property rights.

Manufacturing digital devices in an efficient and profitable way is not an easy task. Scott Lincicome and Alfredo Carrillo Obregon at the Cato Institute described the logistical complexities of supply chains in a blog post last year, using the iPhone as an example. The production of an iPhone 13 included parts from 200 companies in 30 different countries. 

Smartphones are the most commonly owned digital device in the U.S. and would be most affected by right to repair proposals. Consumers enjoy relatively low prices for smartphones, but right to repair laws threaten to prioritize repair over the initial development and production of these devices. In turn, consumers will see higher prices, less quality devices, or both.

As I explain,

For manufacturers, compliance with the legislation will bring increased manufacturing and production costs. Therefore, to comply with that mandate, manufacturers will need to establish systems and processes to manufacture and distribute those repair products feasibly efficiently, and profitably. That includes paying for costs involving research, design, development, and implementation of parts, documents, and delivery.

Further, right to repair legislation implies that devices must be repairable. This could unnecessarily influence manufacturers’ design choices and lead to devices that are less resistant to the most common forms of damage, drops and water exposure.

The use of glue and adhesives have become commonplace in the construction of smartphones in response to consumer demand for more water resistant devices. While the use of sealants has created additional complexities in the repair of devices, these designs function to “resist the intrusion of dust and water into the internal electronics.” Thus, manufacturers are faced with a trade-off: construct tightly sealed electronic devices to increase resistance to water and moisture, or construct devices with more easily replaceable batteries. Overemphasizing repairability could in turn make devices more prone to damage from drops and exposure to moisture.

From the looks of it, right to repair legislation isn’t going away in 2023. State lawmakers should be cautious of slogans centered around repairability and consider the effects that such proposals will have on prices and the designs of digital products.

The full paper, “Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right to Repair: How State ‘Right to Repair’ Legislation Harms Consumers and Innovation,” can be found here