“Right to Repair” Bill Is a Move in the Wrong Direction

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The Fair Repair Act (S. 3830), introduced in the Senate last month, would require electronic manufactures like Apple and Samsung to make certain information and parts available to users and repair shops. The legislation stems from a larger movement called the “Right to Repair,” which has continued to gain momentum in recent years. Nearly half of state legislatures have introduced bills on the issue. And President Biden’s executive order on promoting competition encouraged rulemaking to address “unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items.”

Defining the “right to repair” is not an easy task. This is particularly true in the realm of copyright law, a topic addressed in a separate House bill. Rejecting the Fair Repair Act, however, is fairly simple. There is no mention of legal ramifications that would prohibit an independent provider or user from repairing a device. Instead, the bill seeks to compel manufacturers to sell repair information and replacement parts.

The bill states:

In the case of digital electronic equipment manufactured by or on behalf of, sold, or otherwise supplied by an original equipment manufacturer, the original equipment manufacturer shall make available, for the purposes of diagnosis, maintenance, or repair of such equipment, to independent repair providers and owners of such equipment on fair and reasonable terms, documentation, parts, and tools, inclusive of any updates.

The bill excludes two contentious sectors of electronic equipment that have been discussed in the larger repair debate. It would not apply to manufacturers of certain motor vehicles and medical devices.

Furthermore, the Fair Repair Act makes an underwhelming attempt to protect trade secrets. It states:

Nothing in this Act shall be construed to require an original equipment manufacturer to divulge a trade secret … to an owner or an independent repair provider except as necessary to provide documentation, parts, and tools on fair and reasonable terms.

However, the legislation includes “digital electronic equipment that contains an electronic security lock or other security-related function” and requires manufacturers to provide “any special documentation, tools, and parts needed to disable the lock or function.” These security functions don’t exist solely to protect intellectual property. They also protect users and their data.  

Government officials have largely discounted security implications in their efforts against large tech companies, and the Fair Repair Act is no different. It would ultimately harm consumers with higher prices and less security.

Proponents of the bill have portrayed Apple as a boogieman of sorts, plotting ways to capitalize on cracked screens and water-damaged motherboards. And the tech company is well known for having a controlled ecosystem of devices and software. Some users may prefer a more open ecosystem that allows for easy customization, upgrades, and self-repair. And those products are widely available, usually at a fraction of Apple’s prices.  

Still, the Fair Repair Act ignores the robust competition that already takes place in electronics repair. The Wall Street Journal published a report last year illustrating the process one goes through to have Apple products repaired. One example presented was a water-damaged 2017 MacBook Pro. Apple quoted the repair at $999, while an independent repair shop quoted the repair at $325.

Yippee! One would think this is a prime example of the free market at work, but this disparity in price is presented as an injustice. It’s somehow offered as proof that the status quo is broken and requires federal legislation to fix.

Fortunately, the opposite is true. High-end electronic devices have created a demand for affordable repairs. In turn, independent parties provide repair services that are often faster and more affordable than the original manufacturer. The cell phone repair industry is estimated to be a $4 billion market with over 9,000 businesses across the country. The electronic and computer repair industry is estimated to be worth $19 billion with over 40,000 businesses.

And there is no shortage of success stories for independent repairs. In 2010, a college student discovered that he could make extra income by repairing cracked iPhone screens. The psychology major started a repair business called iCracked in his college dorm room. After four years, iCracked topped $25 million in revenue, with hundreds of technicians located across the country. The company was later purchased by Allstate in 2019.

“Right to Repair” is a multifaceted movement with varying areas of policy concern. Some aspects of copyright law may have room for improvement. One should not face legal repercussions for fixing or altering a device that one purchased and owns.

But this is a two-way street. Manufacturers should be free to cancel a warranty if a user makes an unauthorized repair. Manufacturers should be free to design their products as they see fit, regardless of how cumbersome they may be to repair. And manufactures should not be forced to sell diagnostic material, schematics, tools, and parts.