The right to repair your own devices has been a growing issue around the world, as some companies make self-repair increasingly more difficult. The US state of New York just passed the first modern Right to Repair law, but what does it actually do?
Many modern electronics are difficult to repair, partially because miniaturization and waterproofing make accessing internal components more time-consuming, and also because many companies restrict access to repair manuals and replacement parts. Apple is one of the worst offenders, as it restricted manuals and parts to authorized technicians for years, and the company’s new self-repair program requires renting expensive equipment. The problem isn’t limited to consumer electronics, either — farmers have pushed for repair legislation so they can fix their own tractors and other equipment.
The Digital Fair Repair Act
There have been a few bills in state and federal legislatures that outline the right to repair, but most of them haven’t made it far. The Fair Repair Act was introduced in the House of Representatives in June 2021 by Rep. Joseph D. Morelle (D-NY-25), but hasn’t been passed to the Senate yet, and its fate in the new Republican-controlled House is uncertain. However, the state of New York has made steady progress on its own bill, which was just signed into law by New York Governor Kathy Hochul.
The text of the bill explains, “this bill will protect consumers from the monopolistic practices of digital electronics manufacturers. This legislation will require manufacturers to make non-trade secret diagnostic and repair information available for sale third party repairers. Nothing prevents third party repairers from being technically competent to complete digital repairs other than the lack of information being withheld by manufacturers.”
The bill is intended to place everyone on the same level as authorized repair shops. Device makers must provide the same repair information and parts available to the public that they provide to authorized repair shops. Even though the law only applies to New York, iFixit points out that when France passed a repair law last year, some companies made their repair manuals freely available to anyone online. Even if other states and the federal government move slowly on similar legislation, the Digital Fair Repair Act will almost certainly benefit everyone trying to repair electronics that also happen to be sold in New York. It will apply to products sold after July 1, 2023.
There are a few significant limits to New York’s new law. It carves out a number of exceptions, including “certain public safety communications equipment,” digital home appliances, motor vehicles, and off-road equipment like construction and mining equipment. Farmers are also sidelined yet again, as farm and utility equipment are exempt — another win for John Deere.
The law still seems to apply to computers, phones, tablets, and other devices that a typical person might own, but companies don’t have to make it easy. The bill explains device makers must “make available to the owner and to independent repair providers, on fair and reasonable terms,
any special documentation, tools, and parts needed to access and reset the lock or function when disabled in the course of diagnosis, maintenance, or repair of the equipment.” That probably means Apple’s ridiculous tool-renting program for self-repairing iPhones is still legal, as long as Apple’s lawyers can call that “fair and reasonable” in a courtroom.
Finally, there’s a chance that the entire law could be struck down by state courts. That doesn’t seem too likely, given that corporate lobbying already severely limited the scope of the legislation, but anything could happen.