Opinion Why ‘right to repair’ could be the next big political movement
"There aren’t many issues that unite Democratic, Republican and independent voters, offer a ready-made villain in greedy corporations, and tick off people from all different socioeconomic groups. Which is why the “right-to-repair” movement could gain real momentum, and why any politician looking to demonstrate real populist bona fides — rather than the phony kind — should jump on it.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis just signed the country’s first right-to-repair law aimed at agricultural equipment. It prevents manufacturers such as John Deere from withholding manuals and other information that would enable independent repair professionals, or farmers themselves, to fix tractors, combines and other equipment.
This year, bills have been introduced in 28 states to prevent companies from restricting repairs on cars, electronics, appliances and all kinds of other products. If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t replace the battery in your iPhone, this issue is about you. Sooner or later, it will be about almost everybody.
We now live in what University of Michigan law professor Aaron Perzanowski calls “the tethered economy.” More and more, the things we buy come with strings attached to the manufacturer, effectively requiring us to pay fees to use — or repair — our own stuff.
“What we’re witnessing is fundamentally a shift from selling products to providing services,” Perzanowski, the author of “The Right to Repair: Reclaiming the Things We Own,” told me. “What’s confusing for consumers about that is that the services still look like products.”
We put them on our counters, carry them in our pockets or park them in our driveways, but the companies find ways to keep extracting our money. What makes this possible is that software is built into every piece of technology — not just obvious things such as computers and cellphones, but also appliances, cars and much more.
That software, says Nathan Proctor of the Public Interest Research Group, “opens up a whole new range of opportunities to control the product for the benefit of the manufacturer.”
That’s what farmers have found: In many cases, they can’t repair their tractors because the software won’t let them without the company’s permission. This “software lock” has been particularly frustrating to farmers, who pride themselves on their self-reliance and problem-solving. They often wait weeks or months for the dealer to repair a tractor when farmers could do it themselves or have a local mechanic fix it. When the repair is finally made, it usually costs more.
A backlash is building. In Massachusetts, voters overwhelmingly passed a 2020 initiative giving consumers and repair shops access to data sent wirelessly from cars back to manufacturers. Last week, the Minnesota legislature took a big step toward passing large bills with right-to-repair language. This fall, Maine voters will have an automotive right-to-repair question on their ballots. And in March, a bipartisan group of attorneys general wrote a letter urging Congress to pass national right-to-repair legislation.
Even though much of the action has been in blue states, it hasn’t been all that partisan. “It’s bipartisan everywhere,” Proctor told me. “A lot of the sponsors are Republicans, there’s a lot of grass-roots Republican support.”
The new Colorado law could be important for two reasons, says Perzanowski. First, it provides relief for farmers and independent repair shops. Second, “it’s going to demonstrate that if you pass one of these laws, the sky does not fall, markets do not collapse, John Deere’s not going to pull out of Colorado.”
Only a few lawmakers will echo the manufacturers’ line, which is essentially that they can build their products however they like. In fact, this issue is perfect for leaders who — unlike fake right-wing populists who oppose corporations only when they’re “woke” — are attempting to create a real pro-worker, pro-small business, anti-corporate politics.
Companies are feeling the pressure, with action at the state level and the Federal Trade Commission looking closely at whether these manufacturer restrictions constitute illegal anti-competitive behavior, following an executive order President Biden signed in 2021, which cited “restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment.”
Unlike most problems, the right-to-repair issue appeals to people of almost any ideology, from those who care deeply about individual property rights to those who want to rein in corporate abuse. The argument is easy to understand: Manufacturers shouldn’t be able to tell you what you can and can’t do with your own stuff.
Manufacturers will no doubt adapt; they’re experimenting constantly with how far they can push the limits of consumer tolerance. They might get away with telling consumers they need to pay $90 a month to unlock a bit more horsepower on their cars, but what if you had to pay an extra subscription fee for your air bags to work?
Given all the conditions and restrictions that already come with so many of the things we buy, it no longer sounds like dystopian science fiction. But it doesn’t have to be our future. Politicians in both parties should be shoving each other out of the way to lead the charge."