Columnist Johanna Neumann: Protecting consumers’ right to repair


Published: 7/19/2018 12:18:01 AM

My father was always fixing stuff. I can still smell the glue he used when we worked together to repair a hole in the rubber floaties my brother and I used to ferry shells and sea creatures around on beach vacations.

Those floaties lasted for my entire childhood and are probably still in my dad’s shed, in good working order, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.

Meanwhile, when my husband and I both cracked our phone screens this spring, my husband ordered a couple of replacement screens. With the help of YouTube videos, his reading glasses and some focused time at the kitchen table, he got the phones looking and working like new.

The self-reliance that comes with being able to change your own oil, fix your own flat tire or replace the screen on your phone is important and valuable. As consumers, we should be able to do basic repairs and maintenance to keep the stuff in our lives running.

And in the cases where a professional is required — to clean a duct or repair a car engine, for example — they should be empowered to help.

But companies are steadily chipping away at our ability to repair our own stuff. Apple, John Deere, Microsoft, Samsung, AT&T and many more have spent the last decade elbowing both regular consumers and professional technicians alike out of maintenance and repair, making us solely reliant on the manufacturers themselves to make repairs both large and small.

They claim this ensures consumers with a consistent experience while protecting their intellectual property. But it sure seems like just another way to extend their profits at the expense of the rest of us.

If my husband and I had Apple iPhones instead of Android phones, my husband wouldn’t have been able to use our household set of small Phillips-head screwdrivers to replace our screens. Instead, we would have had to deliver our phones into the hands of the nearest “authorized service provider” — someone who Apple provided with the specialized star-shaped screwdrivers required to disassemble an iPhone.

It’s not just phones. The same thing has been happening to farm equipment for years. For example, John Deere has introduced electronic sensors into nearly every component of its new equipment. Even to make small repairs, you need access to the proprietary John Deere Service Advisor software. Some farmers, fed up from having to call John Deere for every little problem, hired hackers to crack that software so they could fix their machines themselves.

And now, tinkerers and farmers have given rise to a new “right to repair” movement.

This year, 18 states, including Massachusetts, are considering “right to repair” legislation, up from five in 2017. If passed, Massachusetts’ Digital Right to Repair Act would require manufacturers to provide owners and independent repair businesses with fair access to service information, security updates and replacement parts for electronics — like smartphones, computers and farm equipment.

Massachusetts already has strong precedent for right to repair. Six years ago, voters overwhelmingly approved (by a margin of 86 percent to 14 percent) a ballot question known as automotive right to repair. The law gives vehicle owners and independent repair facilities in Massachusetts access to the same vehicle diagnostic and repair information available to the manufacturers’ dealers and authorized repair facilities. Why shouldn’t that extend to all our electronic products, like our smartphones?

The widespread production of diverse disposable goods may at one point have made our lives easier, but it’s now clear that much of the stuff we produce and consume creates more problems than it solves. And when it comes to electronic waste, the problem is only getting worse.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 420,000 mobile devices and 142,000 computers get discarded in America every day, and only 8 percent of mobile phones and 38 percent of computers were recycled. The rest end up in landfills or incinerators. In Massachusetts, we throw out 8,100 cell phones every day, according to Janet Domenitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group.

According to the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, “the generation of waste is increasing at an unprecedented rate ... annual global waste arising from electrical and electronic equipment alone will have increased from 33.8 to 49.8 million tons between 2010 and 2018.”

We need to cut waste, and the simplest way to do that is to use what we already have as long as we can. We can’t address the rising tide of electronic waste without enabling and encouraging consumers to repair, salvage and reuse of more of our stuff.

Let’s support the Digital Right to Repair Act, since it’s one common-sense step lawmakers can take to empower people to meet their own needs, to be more resilient and sustainable.

My dad taught me to fix what’s broken, and in this case, that ethos needs to extend to our laws.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, is an organizer and activist and has spent the past 20 years working to protect our air, water and open space, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society.

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