New York’s Digital Fair Repair Act Doesn’t Defend Property Rights, It Attacks Them

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Consumers shouldn’t face legal penalties for fixing or altering personal electronic devices like smartphones for their own use. The “right to repair” movement, led by a repair focused trade association, was organized in 2013 to defend this position. It sounds like a fair cause, but its advocates campaign for something entirely different. Despite talk of property, in actuality, the movement pushes for legislation that shows little respect for private property.

For the most part, consumers already have the right to repair their electronic devices, even if an unofficial repair job voids a warranty or limits access to a corresponding digital platform. Accordingly, the U.S. Copyright Office grants exceptions to allow these activities. It’s a system that has tradeoffs, but works for many people.

A New York law would upend that system that is already working. Lawmakers passed the nation’s first electronic right-to-repair legislation (which still awaits Governor Kathy Hochul’s signature), the so-called Digital Fair Repair Act (S4104; A7416A). It does nothing to address the property rights of consumers. Instead, it forces electronic manufacturers to sell their private property to independent repair shops, including “documentations, parts, and tools, inclusive of any updates to information or embedded software.”

Consumers have the right to do what they please with their own private property, but manufacturers don’t? The legislation highlights this fundamental contradiction in the right-to-repair movement’s core principles. It adopts a philosophy of property rights for me but not for thee.

The New York bill also brings security risks. If a device contains an “electronic security lock or other security-related function,” manufactures are obligated to sell parts, tools, and documentation needed to reset or disable it. These security features exist to protect users’ devices and data. By requiring manufacturers to distribute sensitive information regarding embedded software and security functions, the bill is inadvertently exposing consumers to greater cybersecurity risks.

A sponsor of the bill wrote that “many of us have stacks of iPads or laptops or desktops in our basement because they’re not worth fixing because of the planned obsolescence so this really breaks the monopoly.” To the contrary, people keep old electronics for different reasons, like security of personal and sensitive information. Perversely, this is the type of data that the Digital Fair Repair Act puts at risk.

The claim of breaking the monopoly is also wrong. Neither the smartphone nor electronic computer repair industries have a high market share concentration. The cell phone repair market is highly fragmented, with over 9,000 businesses in the U.S. While companies like Apple and Best Buy have the largest share of phone repairs, the market is dominated by smaller repair shops. Likewise, the electronic and computer repair industry, led by IBM, has low market concentration with over 47,000 businesses.  

Considering the robustness of the electronic repair industry, it’s unclear why legislation is needed. A Wall Street Journal report shows Apple quoting the repair of a water-damaged MacBook Pro at $999, while an independent repair shop quoted the repair at $325. The report portrays the difference in price as an injustice. But isn’t this actually a prime example of a competitive free market? 

Not only do consumers have several options for repairing their electronics — mobile service providers, original manufacturers, authorized repair shops, independent repair shops, or Best Buy’s Geek Squad — but it turns out most people prefer to buy a new device regardless of repair availability.

Unfortunately, ham-fisted versions of the bill have already been introduced in more than a dozen state legislatures, with a federal version, the Fair Repair Act (H.R. 4006; S. 3830) in Congress. Advocates act as if they know better what consumers want than consumers do. That hubris will lead the way to higher prices and decreased security if New York’s bill catches on — not an outcome anyone should want.