State lawmakers grill manufacturers in Right to Repair hearing
When you buy something, you should be able to do whatever you want with it. That includes fixing the item when it breaks. But over the past few decades, companies have integrated software and other proprietary technology into their products, creating monopolies on the ability to repair the products they’ve manufactured. That’s why the public is so staunchly behind the right to repair. And that’s why about a dozen state legislatures are already considering Right to Repair bills in the first weeks of their 2020 sessions.
Yesterday, the Washington State Senate Environment, Energy & Technology Committee heard testimony about its Right to Repair bill, SB 5799. The pro-repair coalition was represented by small business owners, repair techs, information security experts and e-waste recyclers & refurbishers. Lobbyists representing electronic manufacturer trade associations showed up in opposition to the bill.
While both sides took their best shot, it was clear from the senators’ questions that they felt the manufacturers’ position against SB 5799 was untenable.
Here are some of the points that were made in the hearing.
Local shops vs. big manufacturers
State Sen. Bob Hasegawa (Seattle), the sponsor of the bill, kicked off the hearing, declaring, “This is just a good small business bill. Big corporations that control the vertical process from manufacture to end of life use don’t need advocacy… I’m here to advocate for small business owners.”
Local repair shops -- the people who are fixing, recycling, and refurbishing electronics in our neighborhoods -- are the heart of the Right to Repair campaign. But manufacturers try to elbow them out by not providing the elements essential to fix our broken items.
Sen. Hasegawa told a story about how his smartphone battery wore down, as all batteries eventually do. He got it replaced by an independent repair technician. Later on, when he took his phone into the manufacturer to fix a separate problem, the manufacturer refused to touch the phone because of the independent repair -- something which U.S. PIRG has previously documented.
Withholding service was just one of several issues brought up by pro-repair advocates. Witnesses also testified about manufacturers blocking access to parts. Louis Rossman, owner of Rossman Repair Group, explained that a few years ago, you could buy a new laptop charging chip for $5 to $10. Independent repair shops could acquire these parts and replace broken chips for customers.
According to Louis, the manufacturer has since introduced a new device with a new charging chip. This chip is essentially the same, except for the new firmware that enables the chip to talk to the rest of the device. Here’s the problem: the manufacturer has told its supplier not to give anyone else this part. So, consumers no longer have the option of going to small repair shops to get replacement chips installed. Louis explained that the manufacturer charges $1,500 for the repair, and wipes consumers’ data in the process.
The industry lobbyists, however, attempted to rebut this concern. Charlie Brown, representing the Consumer Technology Association, stated that between the current network of manufacturer-authorized and independent repair options, consumers had plenty of choices.
Sen. Derek Stanford (Bothell) begged to differ. When the fan on his Xbox broke, he did not see a diverse repair ecosystem in which he could choose between authorized, independent, or self repair. Stanford’s only option was to go through Microsoft. He said he paid a high price, waited for weeks and when he got his device back, it didn’t have his data.
“My point here is that… there is no competition.” Stanford said. He added that if there was, someone would provide him, the consumer, with a speedier, cheaper repair and his device would have ended up in a condition that he wanted.
Industry’s response? “We look forward to having a robust conversation.”
Protecting innovation, or undermining a culture of innovators?
CompTIA, an industry association, testified that the bill would create “hurdles to innovation,” without further explanation.
Owen Rubel, a software engineer at the University of Washington, rebutted that access to the parts and information that make our technology run are drivers of, not hurdles to innovation. Modern technology such as “the cloud” was built by people who were able to figure out how early computing technology worked, whether or not they worked for the company who created it. They were able to pursue their curiosity by perusing schematics and taking the the machines apart for a closer look.
This is how the next generation of innovators will continue to advance technology. Instead of restricting access to parts and information, “We should be teaching children how to rip apart our computers and build bigger and better computers,” Rubel said. “If we don’t… that’s a disadvantage to our childrens’ future.”
Without Right to Repair, consumers are discouraged from taking their devices apart -- an important first step to generating the questions that lead to innovation.
“... we should be having this conversation in an underground bunker.”
Industry representatives love to say that consumers put themselves and their data at risk by pursuing independent repair, and this hearing was no different. Right to Repair advocates addressed these straw man arguments.
To address the physical safety of repair, the small business owner Rossman brought up cars. We allow mechanics to jack up these huge machines to do things such as change the oil or a tire. This undoubtedly puts the mechanic at risk, much more than swapping out a phone battery would. But is it society’s job to shield individuals from everything that can harm them?
Tarah Wheeler, a renowned cybersecurity expert, emphatically rejected the argument that the parts, tools, and information that would be available through Right to Repair represent any risk to people’s data. She cautioned that if taking apart a phone really endangered the security of the network, “... we should be having this conversation in an underground bunker.”
“Permitting a screen replacement or battery charger housing resolder on an iPhone or a Google Pixel is not the same thing as deliberately breaking encryption. It is creating a well designed machine created to be reused and repaired,” Wheeler said.
“Do I own this phone?”
One of the toughest questions of the day came from Sen. Marko Liias (Lynnwood). He asked whether or not he truly owns his smartphone. When he buys a pencil from Office Depot, he is free to do whatever he pleases with that pencil. But, he asked, “Do I own this phone? My understanding was that I pay you money, and it’s now mine. It sounds like there’s some lasting commitment -- am I renting it from the company? Why do I have some obligation back to you?”
Again, the lobbyists danced around the question, changing the subject to technological education in middle schools.
Comparing the arguments
In writing this blog, it was hard to come up with many quotes from the opposition. They offered little of substance, and requested that more substantive conversations be held privately. For example, Sen. Doug Ericksen (Ferndale) asked, “Do we have any real threats where repair shops have pirated proprietary information? Unless you guys can show a real risk to copyright infringement and digital theft privacy... I don’t know why we wouldn’t let everybody have a crack at fixing my phone when it breaks.” Even when prodded, an opposing lobbyist would not answer the concerns of the committee members such as Ericksen in public.
One thing is clear: As more and more people engage on Right to Repair, legislators get more pointed in their questions, and more dissatisfied with the answers from manufacturers.