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We need right-to-repair laws now more than ever

This year could have been a huge one for right-to-repair activism — and it still could be, too.

Lawmakers in 20 states have introduced bills that would force manufacturers to share their manuals and diagnostic tools with electronics owners. If passed, these laws would mean that do-it-yourself dabblers and independent fix-it shops could get the same info that official repair partners do to correctly replace worn-out cell phone batteries, faulty optical drives, and all of those other curable headaches that force you to either visit an authorized repair shop or toss the device in the scrap heap.

NurPhoto / Gerry

For a while, there was good momentum behind this movement. But then COVID-19 happened. The pandemic dunked the economy, and many statehouses pulled back on their right-to-repair efforts to focus on the most pressing needs. However, because the pandemic has also taken jobs and income security from millions of people around the world, there’s also an increased need for (and interest in) DIY repair right now.

Faced with an uncertain financial future and ample free time, many people are opting to fix old electronics themselves, rather than spending money on new devices or expensive professional repair services. Sales on the DIY repair kit site iFixit are more than five times the normal, estimates co-founder Kyle Wiens. The numbers on the Nintendo Switch left joystick replacement pack, in particular, are “through the roof,” he says.

So, considering the anemic state of most people’s wallets, now would be an excellent time for right-to-repair (RTR) laws to gain traction.

Popping unlocking

Wiens’ battle for tech rehab started in earnest just under 10 years ago, when the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) clamped down on unlocking phones. “All of a sudden, in one overnight agency ruling, it became illegal to unlock your phone and move it from AT&T to T-Mobile,” explains Wiens. “And that was ridiculous.”

The problematic section of the DCMA was originally intended to stop DVD piracy, but the text created a lot of collateral damage. Among many other problems, the rule gives companies the power to void a product warranty if you try to fix it.

The RTR dust-up is about more than switching out a fried joystick or smashed cell phone glass. The DCMA alters the meaning of product ownership, says Wiens. Since the DCMA protects all copyrighted software — which is woven into the operating systems of tablets, toasters and almost every electric doodad — the manufacturers get to decide if they’ll allow you to look under the hood and replace parts, the same way every weekend car mechanic has for the past century.

How Tesla toys with the issue

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Given that cars are increasingly controlled by modules and microchips, four-wheel tinkerers are also impacted by the DCMA, in stupefying, unexpected ways. For example, Rich Benoit, who hosts the popular Rich Rebuilds YouTube channel, says he lent one of his Teslas to the creators of the like-minded Gears & Gasoline channel in hopes of demonstrating “how amazing these cars are.”

Then Benoit’s Model S hit a pothole in West Virginia, ripping a gash in the driver’s side front wheel. The Gears & Gasoline guys couldn’t just jack up the sedan or even tow it to a tire shop. Teslas are only supposed to be worked on by their official service centers and there isn’t one in West Virginia. On most cars, attaching a donut tire is at most a 30-minute fix. On Teslas, there’s a complicating factor: A very long, thin, and expensive battery lines the bottom of the chassis and makes hiking it up, even to replace a tire, potentially hazardous.

“A mom-and-pop shop is not going to lift a $100,000 car when they have no idea how it works,” Benoit said. “If you jack that car in the wrong place, you’re damaging the battery, 100 percent.” Why doesn’t a West Virginia mom-and-pop tire shop not know how to jack up a Tesla? Because the car company makes the information hard to find. The Gears & Gasoline guys wound up getting a new tire off Craigslist.

Fixing my car: Why Tesla won't help

Benoit’s YouTube channel tracks his five-year quest to salvage and reverse engineer trashed Teslas. He adores the electric roadsters, but is frustrated by how difficult they are to get fixed. In this series, Tesla CEO Elon Musk plays the invisible Goliath to Benoit, a self-taught mechanic. The giant company will only kneel down begrudgingly to help one of its greatest frenemies.

Over years of episodes, Benoit has broken down numerous times, learned enough to open his own service shop — The Electrified Garage — and taught viewers the exasperating limits of current repair legislation.

In 2012, Massachusetts passed the Automotive Right to Repair Law, which gave car owners access to the same manuals and diagnostic software dealerships have to find and fix problems. The law led to an agreement with the Association of Global Automakers that gave mechanics similar rights nationwide. In November, Massachusetts residents may have the opportunity to vote on a ballot initiative that will expand the automotive right-to-repair on-board telematic systems. Activists have collected the needed signatures.

However, Massachusetts’ current Automotive Right to Repair Law doesn’t help Tesla owners as much as it theoretically should — including Benoit, who lives in the state. While Tesla offers mechanics the ability to pay for access to car manuals (as much as $3,000 a year), Benoit says the company limits access to its diagnostic toolkit to official Tesla service partners and attempting to become one could easily cost six figures and still be unsuccessful.

Flash mob

how to fix repair your phone
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Wiens sees a lot of parallels between Benoit’s challenges with Tesla and iFixit’s battles with electronic manufacturers — in particular, “flashing modules.” To replace parts on many current electronic systems, you need to use software to flash the new component; basically, to tell the system that the new part is legit. Because Tesla cars are so smart, even if an owner needs to replace a headlight, the new unit will need to be flashed to the car.

Benoit’s garage has workarounds for the issue, including a homegrown piece of software that can flash some of the modules, and also harvesting relevant chips from a car’s unusable parts. It helps that Benoit’s partners at The Electrified Garage used to work for Tesla, but few mechanics, professional or amateur, have the same expertise.

Right To Repair: Washington Lawmakers Debate What You Should be Able to Fix!

Similar challenges keep Wiens from being able to swap out the home button on an iPhone SE or replace an Xbox Blu-ray drive that’s paired with the mainboard. “Let’s say a motor goes wrong on the optical drive,” explains iFixit’s co-founder. “You can’t replace just the motor or optical drive. We have to sell people a new mainboard and optical drive at the same time — and that’s kind of ridiculous, and expensive.”

Fixing repair laws

Since the DCMA passed, a coalition of repair activists, including Wiens, has been testifying in front of the U.S. copyright board to request exemptions to be able to work on specific categories of electronics such as the Amazon Alexa, IoT devices, smartwatches, and tablets. Given federal copyright rules, exemptions must be requested in each niche and testimony given in front of the board.

“We added up the market cap of the companies lobbying against right-to-repair and it was $2 trillion.”

Even if you have no interest in prying open your phone, computer, or console, there are environmental reasons to push for the movement, notes Wiens. The ability to unlock a phone means that older models owners might have tossed in a drawer can be sold overseas in smaller countries with different telecom networks. Having the latest model won’t be the highest priority.

Phone unlocking, by Wiens’ estimation, is “one of the most substantial pieces of environmental legislation the U.S. has passed in the last 30 years.” Extending the lifecycle of any product will result in eco-positivity. He adds that more repair shops mean more U.S. jobs: “What will create more of a local economy — manufacturing more products in Asia or repairing the products that we have here at home?”

The current state of repair

Both Republican and Democrat lawmakers have introduced right-to-repair bills in statehouses across the country, deeming the ability to fix an inherent freedom for a nation of self-reliant tinkerers. Why haven’t the laws passed? Consider the companies who complain that giving access will open their products up for piracy and abuse. Apple, Sony, Microsoft, Nikon, and many other corporations with deep pockets actively oppose the bills at the state and federal level.

“We added up the market cap of the companies lobbying against right-to-repair and it was $2 trillion,” says Wiens, who figures the bills have a better chance of passing at the state level because few laws make it through the federal grinder, and previous attempts have been stymied.

In a 2017 letter to the Nebraska state legislature, the Entertainment Software Association (which includes console makers Nintendo, Sony, EA, Microsoft, and just about every other gaming company you probably think of) complained that a bill the House was considering would jeopardize consumer safety and compromise intellectual property.

Senators Elizabeth Warren, D-Ma., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., both spoke about their support of right-to-repair when they were presidential candidates. The Farm System Reform Act, sponsored by Warren and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., includes a section that gives farmers the right to repair their own tractors  — some of which, thanks to shady behavior from companies like John Deere are legally barred from fixing their $800,000 tractors. Booker’s farm bill currently has been sitting with the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry since January, and few federal measures have momentum.

Still, Wiens has great hope that a full-fledged right-to-repair bill — inspired in part by the one on the November Massachusetts ballot — will pass at the state level and influence the entire country later this year or in 2021.

But other priorities also take precedent. “I think this would be fantastic,” says Wiens. “But I’m not going to tell the politicians at this time that this law has a higher priority than getting people unemployment checks.”

Neil Gladstone
Neil Gladstone is a freelance writer who has contributed to the New York Times, New York magazine, Thrillist and GQ.
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