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The evidence is piling up that the Right to Repair is both popular and politically viable. State-level laws, which have been the point of the spear in efforts to create a legal right to repair have been steadily making progress. In just the last year New York, Minnesota, and California passed comprehensive electronics Right to Repair laws. Colorado legislators enacted Right to Repair laws granting access to repair information, parts, and software for owners of power wheelchairs and agricultural equipment. In November 2020, Massachusetts voters, by a vote of 3 to 1, expanded that state’s automobile rights law to give vehicle owners access to telematics data needed for repair. And, last week, Maine voters outdid them: passing a similar state law with 84% of voters supporting the measure.
That victory also comes on the heels of Apple, a company that has been a core antagonist in the Right to Repair movement, supporting both California’s new repair law and calling for a federal repair law. The feeling of whiplash is strong when a company that has spent years digging its heels in on an issue begins to cede ground. The upcoming legislative season, which will start after the New Year, is likely to see still more states bring forward Right to Repair laws in different flavors—and some of those will, with any luck, be signed into law.
Of course, these recent legislative victories come after many years of work from advocates that have built power and common sense around issues of corporate power and over-consumption, and the shift could eclipse Right to Repair as we know it. The question now: what comes next?
The Next Frontier of Right to Repair
There is a concept called the Overton window that helps us understand what is happening when companies like Apple back down on repair. Let’s consider a simple example:
Let’s imagine an imaginary city trying to decide on its bike regulations. When determining how to organize the city’s transportation system, it needs to identify a set of policies that it could adopt. On the one hand, it could entirely prioritize bikers and ban cars altogether. Or it could be so pro-car that it bans bicycles within its city limits. Most likely, however, it will find a policy somewhere in the middle instead such as improving signage and implementing bike lanes. What the public (and the lawmakers they elect) considers to be reasonable policies that are worth discussing and debating is called the Overton window.
If (as seems likely) Right to Repair legislation continues to make headway through different geographic regions and industries, expect the Overton window to shift, and new baseline requirements for companies to move with it. This shift was the focus of an article by Maddie Stone at The Verge, which notes that practices like parts pairing and manufacturer control over the supply (and cost) of replacement parts continue to make repairs impossible or financially impractical. The Overton window is shifting Right to Repair beyond just parts and information—moving instead toward concerns about software restrictions and design. The EU has moved to requirements like universal charging ports and eco-design requirements. As Ben Lovejoy at 9to5Mac notes, both design and part pairing could very well be the next domino to fall.
As these articles correctly observe: our thinking about the Right to Repair will need to shift and expand. As basic repair rights such as those enshrined by the laws in New York, Minnesota, California, and Colorado take hold, other anti-repair tactics are now coming into focus, showing that the battle isn’t over once replacement parts, schematics, and repair information are available. Software and design choices are already in the crosshairs of repair advocates, which means laws focused on the full lifecycle of goods (from production through disposal) are the logical next step to hold companies accountable
- The fight over car repair is about your data: Writing for The Conversation, Leah Chan Grinvald, a professor of law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Ofer Tur-Sinai, a professor of law at Ono Academic College write that concerns over cybersecurity and data privacy should not overshadow the need to preserve a competitive space in the auto repair sector and preserve the right to repair. Grinvald and Tur-Sinai say, “This matters not only for safeguarding consumers’ autonomy and ensuring competitive pricing, but also for minimizing environmental waste from prematurely discarded vehicles and parts.”
- Apple Care produced $9 billion in profits annually: The New York Times reports that parts pairing is the prime tactic from Apple in juicing revenue for the company’s repair services.
- Gamers can’t upgrade existing Steam Decks: The Steam Deck OLED new screen won’t be backwards compatible with older models, drawing questions about how upgraded devices can fuel obsolescence. You can find the teardown of the original Steam Deck here.
- Louis Rossmann torches a lobbyist’s argument about Black people: Anti-repair lobbyists say Black people are being hurt by independent medical device right to repair, and YouTuber Louis Rossmann says this is actually just hollow pandering about equity. Rossmann calls out these bad faith arguments as “Black Lives Marketing.”