The pandemic has made living without a computer harder than ever.
Colleen Creer, a 26-year-old customer service rep from Portland, Oregon, was in a bind at the end of last year. She’d just lost her in-person job with a major retailer due to a COVID-19 closure and wanted to do the same type of work remotely. One problem: Creer, who has lived on the edge of poverty for years, didn’t have a computer.
Enter Free Geek, a nonprofit in Portland that salvages broken laptops, tablets and desktops, fixes them and provides them at low or no-cost to people who can’t afford new ones. But while the pandemic heightened the demand for Free Geek’s repaired computers, corporate policies preventing easy access to parts, manuals and equipment made it harder for the nonprofit to complete its mission.
“It’s made the difference between me being able to obtain my housing and put food on my table and obtain my puppy and have him here,” Creer said of her new desktop computer. “I just took my driver’s permit test. Things like that. I wouldn’t have been able to get them done if I hadn’t gotten the computer from Free Geek.”
The pandemic has made living without a computer harder than ever. Employees are working remotely, kids are going to school via laptop, and grandparents are visiting with their grandkids on screens. At the same time, the pandemic has made it harder to get broken devices fixed, as many big chain stores have ceased offering on-site repairs. As a result, people have been forced to send their devices to authorized repair facilities—often waiting weeks for them to be returned.
Many are powerless to avoid that inconvenience because small repair shops and do-it-yourselfers can’t get the parts or manuals they need to complete the job. The problem has become more pronounced in the past decade, as personal devices, appliances and machinery have become increasingly sophisticated. At the same time, brand-name manufacturers have become stingier with spare parts and maintenance information.
The resulting frustration has given new impetus to at least 39 so-called right-to-repair bills in 25 states. The legislation would loosen restrictions on manufacturers’ information and parts and allow small repair shops and handy device owners to do their own fixing.
Manufacturers and distributors of brand-name products are opposed. They say unauthorized repairs are unsafe and compromise security by putting nonstandard components into machines which, they say, makes them more vulnerable to hacking.
Supporters of the right-to-repair bills dispute those assertions.
“[If] we can’t get repair manuals, we have to reverse engineer every device,” said Hilary Shohoney, executive director of Free Geek. “We have to break it to repair it. Trying to find one battery for one machine is damn near impossible. We have to group laptops together to create schematic boards ourselves.”
The bills under consideration in many state legislatures would make the schematics and parts publicly available. Many of the bills are modeled on a Massachusetts law that was approved by voters last November, though that measure applies only to automotive repairs. The Massachusetts legislature is considering a bill that would expand the law to also cover electronic equipment.
Some of the bills would apply broadly to electronic equipment, farm machinery and other devices; others target one category.
Nathan Proctor, director of the right-to-repair campaign at U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), a nonprofit that advocates for consumers, said when the pandemic started last year, many people began hauling old devices from their basements and attics and trying to make them work. “Now all of a sudden you need a computer for every person. Everybody needed to work remotely at the same time,” he said.
Many people were frustrated to find that small repair shops couldn’t help with the old devices because of manufacturer restrictions.
“The lesson is that manufacturer-controlled systems with single points of failure undermine community resilience,” Proctor said in a phone interview. “That’s what we found out in the pandemic.”
At hearing after hearing in the states, right-to-repair advocates singled out Apple products as the toughest to crack for independent repairs. Apple did not respond to multiple Stateline requests for comment.
TechNet, a trade group that represents Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell and other device manufacturers, has testified against right-to-repair measures in many states. The group says it opposes them “because of the potential for troubling, unintended consequences, including serious cybersecurity risks, privacy risks, safety risks, piracy hazards, and barriers to innovation.”
TechNet’s David Edmonson, vice president of state policy and government relations, said in an emailed statement that the bills would not require independent repairers to undergo the same training and certifications as authorized repairers.
Edmonson noted that lawmakers in many states have rejected such bills in the past, but did not address the question of whether things have changed during the pandemic.
“Legislators weighed the arguments and chose not to create government mandates to force manufacturers to provide unrestricted access to digital keys and proprietary information for thousands of internet-connected products, including phones, fire alarms, and home security systems,” he said in an emailed statement.
But Maryland state Sen. Katie Fry Hester, a Democrat who is sponsoring right-to-repair legislation, says Marylanders who contact her call it a “just let us fix our stuff” bill.
“We can’t have our kids miss a month of school while we are waiting for repair of our laptop,” she said in a phone interview. “The schools were scrambling to get devices repaired and working.”
She said she heard tales of people in her district being able to get a cracked screen fixed on their device, but not, for example, a charging port. “Repair means low-cost, refurbished items can work longer.”
According to the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, a consumer organization that is part of U.S. PIRG, the right-to-repair measure would save Marylanders $735 million a year by reducing spending on electronics and appliances by 22%, about $330 a year per household. Consumer groups also contend that repairing devices is more environmentally friendly than throwing them away.
Hester also pointed out that at the height of the pandemic, hospitals were struggling to repair ventilators during a shortage of the devices, and running into the same problem with manufacturers—until a group of state attorneys general and state treasurers struck a deal with them to provide parts and repair information.
Along with electronic devices and hospital ventilators, many of the states’ right-to-repair bills address farm equipment. Repairing that equipment can be even more of a problem, supporters say, because repair facilities can be far from rural farms and because of the urgency of planting or harvesting.
Montana state Sen. Mark Sweeney, a Democrat, steered his right-to-repair bill through the Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee on a 10-1 vote. But as soon as it was out of the committee, “it was lobbied hard by the implement dealers and manufacturers,” he said in a phone interview. “There was a component that wanted to see this bill dead and go away.”
In a statement on its website, the Western Equipment Dealers Association said it opposed the Montana bill because of “safety, warranty, and environmental concerns that will affect dealers and their customers. Manufacturers should also have the right to protect their investment in intellectual property that propels innovation in the agricultural industry.”
The Montana Senate defeated the bill 30-20.
At a hearing last month, Montana farmers and ranchers testifying in favor of the bill often mentioned farm equipment manufactured by John Deere. An email from John Deere’s media department pointed Stateline to a statement on the company’s website.
“When customers buy from John Deere, they own the equipment and can choose to personally maintain or repair the product. When our customers need help, hundreds of Deere dealers and thousands of Deere-certified technicians nationwide stand ready to assist, either in person, on site, or remotely,” it said.
“We do not condone altering our machines from their engineering standards, which can pose a risk to not just the current owner and their employees, but other equipment operators, future owners, John Deere dealers, and the environment.”
That stance doesn’t sit well with Dave Kesler, a farmer, mechanic, contractor and general “Mr. Fixit” whose property lies 80 miles from Missoula, in Philipsburg, Montana. Two decades ago, Kesler placed third in a national mechanics competition working on Deere equipment. But he can’t perform his own repairs anymore, because he doesn’t have the proprietary technical equipment to read the error codes that show up on his machines when they stop running. Instead, he must pay $500 for a John Deere tech to visit.
“You can’t just start throwing parts at it … if you don’t know what the code is, you don’t know where to start,” Kesler said in an interview. “It makes it impossible.”
This article was first published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.