The Battle of Boston: Manufacturers War With Fixers at Repair Bill Hearing
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The Battle of Boston: Manufacturers War With Fixers at Repair Bill Hearing

Jacquilyn Gonzalez-Johnson’s family has broken two iPhone XRs in the last three months. But even though her husband runs a professional repair shop, she had to drive two hours, without phone service, to the nearest Apple Store that could fit her in.

Gonzalez-Johnson spoke at Monday’s hearing on a Right to Repair bill in Massachusetts. Her story was the one that, if you don’t have 3 hours for all the hearing’s testimony, you should hear.

The family’s phones broke in such a way that her husband, an 8-year repair veteran, couldn’t fix them without Apple’s proprietary technology. It hurt Gonzalez-Johnson’s pride to take the phones to the Apple Store, but it also just hurt. It cost $400 for the out-of-warranty repairs, when she knew the parts would be $180. What’s more, “They didn’t repair them,” Gonzalez-Johnson testified Monday. “They just got rid of them and gave me new phones. A new phone’s great, but I had to back them all up again.”

Gonzalez-Johnson’s testimony was aimed at pushing Massachusetts’ Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure to move a Digital Right to Repair bill toward a floor vote in the legislature. There’s a good chance it could pass; the Senate and House bills are identical, and they have broad support with Democrats and Republicans. If Massachusetts approves a Right to Repair law, it could trigger a nationwide agreement among manufacturers, similar to what happened after the state passed an automotive right to repair law in 2012.

Roughly 30 people spoke at Monday’s hearing, on both sides. In case it wasn’t clear, we’re on the side of getting a vote and making things easier to repair. We watched the whole 3-hour hearing, but you probably didn’t. So here’s a recap of some notable quotes and arguments, with timed links to repair advocate Louis Rossman’s helpful video recording (you will sometimes hear Rossman’s quips and thoughts on each speaker at these links).

Trade Groups Offer Nonsensical Arguments Against Repair

via Dejan Krsmanovic/Flickr

Early on in the hearing, we saw a quadrangle of opposition from trade groups representing manufacturers.

Sarah Faye Pierce, director of government relations for the Association for Home Appliance Manufacturers, claimed that people “have the right to choose however you want to repair that product,” but repair businesses do not have a right “to get access to the intellectual property of those brands.” In other words, you have your choice of who tries to repair your appliances and fails to do so because of crucial firmware tools they can’t access.

Priscilla Oliveira, state policy analyst for the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, said that, “If not properly installed, maintained, and repaired, HVAC equipment…will not provide important energy-saving benefits and will undermine energy-efficiency initiatives.” If only your local furnace repair shop would remember to toggle the “Concern for the Planet” switch.

Lisa McCabe, director of state legislative affairs for CTIA, the wireless industry trade group that lobbied for years against your right to unlock your phone, said that “consumers have a number of ways today to get their products repaired.” Right to Repair legislation could give away information that could have legal and security implications, McCabe said. A “how-to book on how to work on every bit of electronics” would mean dangers to network and personal security, she said, without noting any examples or even hypotheticals. 

When asked if repair shops need to pay for a “subscription service” to have access to diagnostic tech or parts, McCabe said “I don’t know the answer to that.”

Timothy Johnson, senior director of government affairs for the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), said that Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are “committed to providing consumers with repairs that are quick, reliable, and safe,” with “a variety of options.” Right to Repair laws would endanger the anti-piracy digital locks inside game consoles, Johnson said. Sharing diagnostic tools with “unvetted third parties” would compromise platform security.” He noted that the US Copyright Office ruled against opening up game console repairs under DMCA exemptions, which is true.

Asked if the components inside a game console are proprietary, Johnson said he was not sure. Some components, we think, surely are, but many pieces—cooling fans, hard drives, even some video cards and power supplies—are generic and replaceable. We sell a number of game console parts in our store.

via Michael Curi/Flickr

We also saw testimony from a few other anti-repair advocates throughout the hearing.

Daniel Carson, from Schmidt Equipment, a regional dealer for John Deere farm equipment, said that “Deere supports the customer’s right to repair.” This is quite a rhetorical gambit. John Deere is such a known entity in restrictive software and equipment licenses for their tractors that Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that. Carson noted a commitment Deere has made to supplying farmers with some kind of access by 2021; forgive us if we don’t expect a lot from the company that has made U.S. farmers resort to buying gray market parts from Eastern Europe.

Christina Fisher, regional executive director for electronics lobbying group TechNet, said there’s “plenty of consumer choice” for repair. Fisher also said that “Some of the people you’re hearing from today greatly seek to profit off of this legislation being passed.” As opposed to TechNet and other industry groups, who attended the hearing solely out of an abundance of goodwill and compassion.

Walter Alcorn, vice president of environmental affairs for consumer tech group CTA, claimed that e-waste is the “fastest declining part of the municipal waste stream.” This is a generous read on EPA statistics last updated for 2015, where recycling and generation took a one-year dip from 2014. A reduction in the rate of municipal e-waste recycled does not prove that less e-waste was produced. Alcorn also claims that, actually, mobile devices are mostly getting reused or resold, because they have very little recycling value. We … agree? But this hearing is about devices being repaired so as to last longer, so what are we arguing here?

Fixer Heroes Demonstrate Why Repair Matters

On our side of the fence, we saw some great testimony supporting Right to Repair laws.

Arthur Tory, a mobility advocate, asked the committee to consider expanding the Right to Repair bill to consumer-owned medical devices. When his power chair breaks, Tory has to wait six to eight weeks for insurance approval and dealer authorization to get it fixed. That’s because programming the software on his chair requires a $700 dongle, one he’s technically not allowed to have. Tory noted that, if he wanted, he could “turn my minivan into a fire-breathing monster” using parts from an auto store, but “I can’t fix my own 4-mile-per-hour power chair because, ‘Oh, you might hurt yourself.’”

“I have never run into such condescension as I encounter from the mobility industry,” Tory said.

via Aisart/Wikimedia

Jessa Jones, owner of iPad Rehab and repair superhero, noted that among 30,000 repairs her team completed, “less than 5% would have been considered repairable by authorized repair.” Apple’s new Independent Repair Program, Jones said, “is quite anti-repair.” Official parts are intentionally priced to make buying a new device more appealing, Jones said. But there are still lots of repairs that Apple cannot or will not perform, in favor of device upgrades or whole-board replacements.

“Practical repair is such a great thing. Users don’t have an option to do practical repair from authorized sources,” she said.

Louis Rossman, owner of Rossman Repair Group and the day’s videographer, directly addressed many of the lobbying group’s arguments, and brought up personal examples of independent repair doing the work authorized repair could or would not do—watch his whole 3-minute testimony, it’s good. His kicker got a rare smile out of the Boston-based committee:

I think that the law needs to evolve to keep up with the technology. And the last excuse I heard was, ‘This has been denied in every state. Why Boston? Why Massachusetts?’ Wouldn’t that have been a great attitude to have 250 years ago.

Nathan Proctor of US PIRG said that the authorized service contracts from companies like Whirlpool are not full of guidelines to safely repair devices, but 40 pages about what truck to drive, uniform standards, and pricing guidelines. “So when we say authorized repair, we mean manufacturer-controlled repair.”

Gay Gordon-Byrne of the Repair Association, noted that companies disclaim nearly all control and responsibility when you buy a product: enjoyment, injury, emissions, and more. The reason they want to control repair, Gordon-Byrne said, is money. “If they can force you to buy only their repair services at the prices they set, and block other repairs, they will be able to control how you purchase, and how often you have to purchase a replacement.”

Ming Chow, associate teaching professor of cybersecurity at Tufts University, told the committee that the arguments about protecting device security by blocking repair legislation were, in a word, silly. Everything can be reverse-engineered, Chow said, and if not in the U.S., it will be in other countries. “Security through obscurity is not the answer. We’re all going to find out, somehow and some way.” William Hedberg, another security worker, noted that Apple’s secrecy around its bootcode allowed checkm8, an iOS jailbreaking vulnerability, to be present in the iPhone 4S all the way up to the X.

The Battle of Boston is just the beginning. If you’re in Massachusetts, email the committee members and tell them you want your right to repair. If you’re in another state, your battle is not far behind, so send a message to your legislators using this tool and make your voice heard!

Top image by William Zhang/Flickr.