In the last decade, Massachusetts voters have twice approved “right to repair” ballot measures for vehicles — both times by overwhelming majorities. Those laws were focused on cars and required manufacturers to share their diagnostics data with independent auto-repair shops, giving residents the opportunity to turn to third-party mechanics as opposed to being left with no choice but to go to dealer shops for car repairs. The law effectively strengthens competition for repairs and provides consumers with better deals as a result.
Now, the Massachusetts Legislature is considering another right-to-repair bill, this time for electronics like phones and computers. And just as this editorial board endorsed the right to repair for cars, the same logic should apply to electronics as well: Consumers should not have to turn to big manufacturers like Apple — which often overprice their products, hardware, and repair services — in order to fix their phones. The Legislature should approve the bill.
Opposition to right-to-repair bills often comes from the manufacturers, and it almost always focuses on purported cybersecurity risks and the potential for hacking cars or devices. In a statement to the editorial board, TechNet, an advocacy group that represents companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon, said that these kinds of bills create potential for unsafe repairs by forcing “manufacturers to provide unrestricted access to digital keys and proprietary information for thousands of Internet-connected products, including phones, computers, fire alarms, and home security systems.”
But the reality is that opening up access to diagnostics does not pose a serious threat to consumers — at least not any more so than the many cybersecurity risks they already face with their electronic devices. In fact, according to a report by the Federal Trade Commission, there is “scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.” By limiting access to proprietary diagnostic software, manufacturers end up monopolizing repairs — potentially violating antitrust laws — and, as the FTC pointed out in its report, push consumers to prematurely replace their products with new ones, adding unnecessary costs to households across the country.
“These types of restrictions can significantly raise costs for consumers, stifle innovation, close off business opportunity for independent repair shops, create unnecessary electronic waste, delay timely repairs, and undermine resiliency,” said Lina Khan, the chair of the FTC. Indeed, when manufacturers effectively have a monopoly on repairs, they put consumers in a position to make decisions about whether to make a costly repair or, if they can afford to, buy a new device altogether. Apple, for example, was sued for consumer fraud for intentionally slowing its iPhone batteries, which state attorneys general argued caused consumers to prematurely buy new phones. (If people were to hold on to their electronic devices for longer rather than prematurely replace them, they would not only save money but contribute to a cleaner environment by significantly reducing electronic waste.)
Increasing competition is not only good for consumers, but also for small businesses. Many of those Main Street businesses have been struggling. David Webb, the owner of Hamilton Computer Repairs in Worcester, has seen the demise of independently owned repair shops firsthand since he opened his store nearly a decade ago. “When I opened, there were 11 computer repair shops in Worcester and one in each surrounding town,” he said at a recent Legislature hearing. “Now there are three in the county.”
While Apple does share its technology with third-party shops through certification programs, it mostly does so with big-box retailers like Best Buy. (Apple has licensed over 1,800 shops to repair their products; about 1,000 of them are Best Buys.) Opening up their technology to any repair shop would only help bolster small, independently owned businesses. And having more businesses able to repair computers and phones would avoid crises like the early stages of the pandemic, when people were unable to fix their phones or computers in a timely fashion because big manufacturers closed their doors and consumers had few accessible alternatives, if any.
Ultimately, the right to repair is not about cybersecurity risks. It’s about accessibility and preventing predatory monopolies from making electronics a bigger cost burden for households, especially low-income ones. And though big manufacturers will claim that their interests lie in ensuring their customers’ safety, the Legislature, by passing the right-to-repair bill, would be the one to actually protect consumers.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.