Granite Geek: Critics warn right-to-repair bill could be disastrous

Monitor staff 
Published: 2/11/2019 6:24:20 PM

If you want to be terrified about living in your own house, may I suggest you attend a legislative hearing about right-to-repair laws.

If the hearing goes as one did in Concord last week, you will learn from industry representatives that you can be killed or maimed by your smoke alarm (if it fails), your refrigerator (if food spoils because the door-was-left-open alarm doesn’t work), your washing machine (if the lid lock is disabled and you fall inside), your cooking range (if heating controls go awry) and almost anything with a lithium-ion battery.

And this doesn’t include obviously deadly things like chainsaws and riding mowers.

“You could modify the tractor so you can start it in gear; you can have the mower running when you get off, and have your 6-year-old drive it,” William Taranovich Jr., president of North Country Tractor in Pembroke, warned the House Committee on Commerce and Consumer Affairs.

The common cause of all these potential disasters – as well as non-fatal but unpleasant disasters such as having your identity stolen online or seeing that cool videogame you created taken by cyberpirates – is a bill called House Bill 462. It would require manufacturers to freely provide instructions and software, information that frequently isn’t available, so that people diagnose and repair their devices.

Proponents say it’s only fair to let people repair the objects they have bought. Industry leaders argue it will invariably lead to amateurs tinkering with the electronics that drives all machinery these days, bypassing safety systems and producing the disasters that legislators heard about.

New Hampshire is one of about 20 states where versions of this law are being proposed via a national push by a group called Repair.org. No state has passed a sweeping right-to-repair law, although Massachusetts passed a version that only applied to automobiles. A version of this bill was shot down in New Hampshire legislative committee last year.

“It is absolutely outrageous that I cannot buy a simple item with a repair manual,” testified Alan Freed, co-founder of a UNH program to reuse materials. He told of repair cafes, which are a sort of mobile makerspace program, that have seen “a huge surge of electronics that are designed to fail.”

“People bring all sorts of electronics they wish they could fix, but we don’t have the tools to fix ... because manufacturers won’t release them,” he said.

It’s not just geeks who are frustrated. There’s a prominent agricultural subset to the right-to-repair movement involving farmers irritated that their six-figure combine won’t start until an industry representative arrives to upgrade the firmware.

Rep. Dave Luneau, D-Hopkinton, prime sponsor of the bill, put the argument succinctly: Forcing firms to cough up this information and give it to people who have coughed up money for products is only fair.

“People own the hardware. If they need to get into the back to change the battery, the keyboard, replace the screen, these are things they have a right to do,” he said.

(Incredibly, not a single proponent of the bill quoted the state motto. I thought citing “Live Free or Die” was a mandatory part of all New Hampshire rhetoric when even a whiff of personal choice was involved.)

Much of the right-to-repair outrage has been directed at consumer electronics such as smartphones and tablets and modems and routers. But almost any product more complicated than a spatula these days has electronics in it and could be affected by the bill. That explains opposition to the bill voiced by lobbyists for a half-dozen industry groups, several of whom came from out of state, ranging from the Rechargeable Battery Association to medical device manufacturers to the cable industry, whose representative said cable firms had “more than one million devices, mostly leased” in New Hampshire alone.

Also in opposition were more than a dozen people who work at several tractor and lawn-equipment retailers around the state. They echoed Taranovich’s concerns that the bill would let people tweak their equipment in dangerous ways – although bill proponents argued that they were mostly concerned about protecting their lucrative repair business.

This year’s version of the bill includes exemptions of some medical equipment and larger off-road equipment, trying to placate concerns.

Two big obstacles presented themselves at the hearing. Tim White, head of the Air Resources Division of the state Department of Environmental Services, expressed concern that releasing software data to owners of lawn tractors and other powered equipment would help them bypass pollution-control devices, which is why the division opposes the bill.

That makes DES sound pretty cynical but let’s be honest, there’s a non-small segment out there who would bypass pollution controls in a heartbeat if it made their lawn tractors or ATVs or whatever go faster.

The other big obstacle involves something we usually like: Being first in the nation.

Michael Costable, R-Raymond, wondered how companies would react if New Hampshire passed the bill but few other states went along. The cost or irritation factor of complying with right-to-repair in one small market might be too much: “Would they essentially not sell in New Hampshire?” he wondered.

The bill will be chewed over by a subcommittee before the committee decides what to do with it.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)



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