Manufacturers Try and Fail to Debunk Right to Repair
Tech News

Manufacturers Try and Fail to Debunk Right to Repair

Every week, we get a roundup of recent developments in Right to Repair news, courtesy of Jack Monahan and Paul Roberts from Fight to Repair, a reader-supported publication. Sign up to receive updates in your inbox. (It’s free!) Or become a premium subscriber for access to exclusive content and live events!

This past week, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) released a report on the case against the right to repair. The report, which was authored by Ike Brannon and Kerri Seyfert of the D.C.-based consultancy Capital Policy Analytics, is supposed to be a systematic refutation of right to repair arguments—but it falls way short: It recycles already-refuted industry talking points and puts a funhouse mirror in front of the common sense idea that making the stuff we bought last longer is a good thing.

The sudden increased demand for ventilators in 2020 exposed the lack of repair documentation for old machines (Photo by AJ Mast for General Motors)

No, manufacturers don’t already provide the necessary diagnostic and repair tools to consumers

If, as the authors suggest, manufacturers already provide the necessary diagnostic repair tools to consumers then they shouldn’t be worried about right to repair legislation, since it wouldn’t change anything. But, as we know, that’s not reality. Independent repair shops and owners struggle to access essential tools, replacement parts, and software updates. Working only through authorized repair leads to exorbitant costs and delays. For example, a 2022 study found that 80% of independent electronics repair shops reported difficulties obtaining necessary parts and information from manufacturers. A 2020 survey by the US PIRG Education Fund of 222 biomedical professionals at the height of the COVID pandemic found that nearly half reported they had been denied access to ”critical repair information, parts or service keys” needed to service medical equipment like ventilators.

It’s crazy to suggest that right to repair hurts the environment

The authors claim right to repair could worsen air pollution and create environmental harm. They cite risks of illegal tampering with emissions control systems in cars and tractors, increased production and shipping emissions associated with parts availability, and potential for consumer misuse of equipment. But study after study after study shows that making and shipping a discrete replacement part is far better for the planet than forcing an owner to throw away a fixable, serviceable device and then manufacture a whole new device to replace it. Nice try, NAM—but this is an argument in bad faith. As for the air quality stuff? Put aside the offensive notion that companies like John Deere tout: that their customers are just dying to pollute the environment, but Deere’s software locks hold them back. However, the EPA made clear in a letter sent in August 2023 to the National Farmers Union that the Clean Air Act allows—and encourages—farmers to have a choice to repair their own equipment, including emissions-related components.

If NAM doesn’t want a patchwork of state laws, why haven’t they supported a federal law?

NAM is concerned that a patchwork of state laws makes compliance more difficult and expensive. And you know, they’ve got a point there. A patchwork of state laws does increase the compliance burden on manufacturers. But state laws are sure better than nothing at all. As the saying goes: states are the “laboratories of democracy,” and that’s true with right to repair, which began in earnest more than a decade ago when Massachusetts voters approved an auto right to repair ballot measure. That’s been followed in recent months with electronics right to repair laws in New York, Minnesota and California, and laws covering power wheelchairs and agricultural equipment in Colorado. These laws are just now coming into effect, so if NAM is worried about different requirements across different states they should probably get behind the idea of a federal right to repair law that provides a blanket right to all Americans, while also allowing for more stringent, state-level laws (as currently is the case with environmental regulations.) But, alas, the NAM report is opposed to a federal law, as well. In other words: NAM wants no right to repair of any kind, whether state or federal.

Money Talks in Politics

Powerful corporations and organizations can influence public narratives. By controlling and influencing media (along with lobbying), corporations control how we think and talk about issues. This report by NAM is manufactured consent in action: a wealthy industry association with millions in the bank is trying to seed the conversation with false, but reasonable-sounding arguments against a grassroots movement its members find threatening. In the process, NAM is trying to “manufacture” (pun intended) the idea that there is a groundswell of opposition to the right to repair.

We should all consider ourselves warned: there are still powerful interests (and money) determined to keep right to repair laws from expanding. Right to repair remains a common sense, broadly popular concept. It’s going to take more than misinformed hand-wringing about air quality and intellectual property to change how the vast majority of people feel.

More News

EU ecodesign regulations should make e-bike batteries (like the one in this Xiaomi folding bike) more widely available.
  • You can now access Apple’s official diagnostics tool online for DIY repairs: Apple made access to its diagnostics tool available online for iPhone 15 series and M2 Macs. The tool offers diagnostic capabilities, similar to authorized repair providers. The move comes just days before the nation’s first comprehensive electronics right to repair law, passed in New York State, goes into effect on December 28th. Users of Apple M2-based MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, Mac Mini, Pro, and Studio will get access to tools, parts, and manuals previously restricted to Apple and authorized repair partners. In other good (Apple) news: the company has extended its self-repair program to Norway and other countries (however, the diagnostic tool is US-only).
  • Battery repair remains difficult: Repairing EV and e-bike batteries can be beneficial for sustainability and cost-saving but is dangerous and requires expertise says Maddie Stone at Grist. Regulatory efforts are underway in Europe to promote repairability of e-bike batteries, while EV battery repair remains largely unregulated which is surprising given the volume of EV sales in the U.S.
  • U.S. PIRG wants you to sign its petition: There’s a petition to stop Microsoft from leaving millions of computers behind by abandoning Windows 10. They aren’t the only company letting software drive e-waste—and we need to push back against repair and software restrictions to make sure products that are designed to last.
  • Lawmakers call out NHTSA’s unfair take on Massachusetts auto right to repair law: Democrats in Congress are warning that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) proposed guidance for implementation of Massachusetts’ Data Access Law conflicts with the Biden administration’s pledged support for Right to Repair, Politico reports. REPAIR and SMART Act co-sponsor Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez (D-WA) joined Reps. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) and Jared Golden (D-ME) in sending a letter to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and NHTSA Administrator Sophie Shulman outlining concerns that NHTSA’s latest guidance—which limits independent repair shops to using short-range Bluetooth wireless connections—may unfairly harm independent repairers.