How big tech stopped Right to Repair in New York

And why they’re working so hard across the country to prevent similar initiatives

Things used to be made to last — but the lifespan of modern electronics is much shorter than it once was, and keeps getting shorter.

This trend means more sales for manufacturers, and there is increasing concern that our products are designed to become obsolete more quickly. Another factor reducing the lifespans of our devices is that manufacturers have made it increasingly difficult to repair their products, limiting the options consumers have when something stops working. The Right to Repair movement aims to disrupt this cycle by providing consumers with parts, tools and service information needed to fix their stuff.

Public support for Right to Repair is growing — 19 states have introduced bills across the country that would make it easier to fix broken technology. In 2012, a ballot measure in Massachusetts that required vehicle owners and independent repair shops to have access to the same repair information as manufacturers passed with an overwhelming 86 percent of the vote. However, while there have been many attempts to expand Right to Repair beyond cars, state reforms have mostly stalled out in the 2018 legislative session.

Why is Right to Repair legislation so difficult to pass? The reforms would save money, cut waste and create small business opportunities. A look at lobbying in New York sheds light on the obstacles we face.

Tech companies spend big to stop Right to Repair

Despite the support of New York Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, Assembly Bill 8192, or the “Fair Repair Act,” failed without getting to a vote. A big reason the measure never got scheduled for a vote appeared to be a big lobbying push by Apple. How can consumers compete with multibillion dollar juggernauts such as Apple who possess seemingly endless cash reserves to lobby for their cause?

New York law requires individuals and organizations to disclose money spent on lobbying, so we know which companies spent advocating against the Fair Repair Act and how much. In March and April of this year, Apple paid $18,189 to The Roffe Group to lobby on their behalf in New York. Records from the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics show Apple only disclosed lobbying against both S618C and A8192A (the Senate and Assembly Fair Repair Acts respectively) during the two month period. That makes this $18,189 exclusively targeted to defeating Right to Repair.

And while Apple led the charge against the bill, they were hardly alone. Other companies including Toyota, Verizon, Medtronic, Caterpillar, Facebook, AT&T and Johnson & Johnson lobbied on both bills during the same time, spending a combined $102,160.

In comparison, the Digital Right to Repair Coalition reported $5,162 on legislative lobbying over the same time. That’s a 20 to 1 ratio. This is actually a closer ratio than in previous years — a 2017 report by MapLight found that opponents of Right to Repair outspent supporters 28 to 1 in states across the country.

Companies lobbying against Right to Repair represent $2.5 trillion in total value

Apple stands to make a lot of money on monopolized repair. Analysts estimate that the company makes between $1 billion and $2 billion annually in repair revenue. Consumers should have better options when it comes to repairing their products. Why go to the Apple store or Best Buy when you can go to the repair shop around the corner and have your problem fixed in half the time for a fraction of the price?

Apple has been one of the most high-profile companies in the Right to Repair legislative battles. In Nebraska, the company sent Apple representative Steve Kester to speak with State Senator Lydia Brasch, sponsor of the state’s Right to Repair act. According to Sen. Brasch, Kester stated that if the bill were to pass, Nebraska would become a “mecca” for hackers — a widely disputed claim. Representatives for Apple also said they would end their attempts to stop the bill if Brasch removed any language dealing with phones.

Right to Repair and Cyber Security

In New Hampshire, TechNet, a group that advocates for the interests of large tech companies including Apple and Oracle, published a piece stating that if a proposed Right to Repair bill were passed in the state, residents would be exposed to “significant security vulnerabilities and have a chilling effect on innovation.” A survey conducted by The Security Innovation Center, a lobbying group backed by the tech industry, tried to pit security against convenience to reinforce the notion that people prefer secure devices over simpler repair.

Of course, we would argue that security tradeoffs are a red herring. The Berkman Center at Harvard testified in a Massachusetts’ hearing on Right to Repair that not only is there no legitimate security concerns from giving access to parts and manuals, Right to Repair reforms would increase the security of our devices by making things easier to fix if they had security flaws.

“Opening the Right to Repair to third parties and device owners will have the overall effect of enhancing security, rather than compromising it … if the security of a product relies only on nobody knowing how it works, then it is much less likely to be effective. This is known as “Security through obscurity”, and this concept is key to motivating more transparency in the implementation of security in the systems upon which our lives and society rely.”
Testimony from Rachel Kalmar and Nathan Freitas of the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society

It should not be up to companies to decide whether or not you can repair your own property. Even if there are risks — which is disputed — it should be up to the consumer to decide whether it is worth taking a chance. Allowing tech companies to maintain their monopoly on repair simply deprives people of that choice.

While the bill in New York didn’t make it through this legislative session, we are making promising strides and gaining support from the public. Large tech companies might have the funds to fight legislation, but they are facing increasing scrutiny for their policies toward third party repair. Looking to the future, we hope to focus our attention on supporting and facilitating grassroots movements in key states that can aid our efforts to pass meaningful Right to Repair legislation.