For Immediate Release: Thursday, March 3, 2022
A bill pending action in the House of Representatives hopes to give Delawareans the right to repair equipment they own, ranging from cell phones to farm tractors.
“Currently, there are a lot of products that can only be repaired by the manufacturer or by technicians tied to the manufacturer,” said State Rep. Ruth Briggs King (R-Georgetown, Long Neck), the prime sponsor of House Bill 22. “This is especially true when the manufacturer withholds access to digital replacement components and the ability to interface with software or firmware needed to operate the device. When consumers and third-party repair shops can’t get what they need to service privately owned products, it puts too much power into the hands of manufacturers, allowing to them to force obsolescence and eliminating repair as an alternative to replacement.”
One recent example of the ongoing tug-of-war between consumers and manufacturers is a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey in late January. The class action lawsuit brought against Brother Industries alleges that the company illegally ties service of its computer printers to the use of its authorized repair providers – an act the plaintiff maintains is a violation of a federal warranty law and unjustly enriches the company.
While House Bill 22 is entitled the Delaware Digital Right to Repair Act, Rep. Briggs King says it has broader implications that just electronic equipment. “More and more products are becoming part of ‘the internet of things,’” she said. “Most farm equipment, for instance, is now reliant on proprietary software and digital components to operate. John Deere has been notorious for its monopolistic practice of restricting farmers’ ability to repair and upgrade their own equipment. The company continues to be at the center of controversy, despite signing an agreement in 2018 pledging to make repairs easier.”
Speaking in a TED Talk recorded last summer, Gay Gordon-Byrne, the executive director of the Digital Right to Repair Coalition (repair.org), said “the vast majority of products on the market today cannot be repaired by any party without being totally dependent on the manufacturer. And the day the manufacturer decides they don’t want you to fix it, it’s over. This is a completely artificial problem.”
Ms. Gordon-Byrne said the Right-to-Repair movement extends beyond the simple concept that consumers should be able to use, modify, and repair their own possessions. She said the ability to fix and update products keeps them out of landfills, makes used goods available to people that could not afford new products, and creates jobs.
“There’s a charity in Minnesota called Tech Dump,” she said. “They take in donated electronics and hire adults that are hard to employ, many of whom are coming out of the criminal justice system, [and] train them to make repairs. They then take the repaired goods, sell them, and use the proceeds to fund more training. They’re keeping equipment out of the waste stream; they’re bringing good-quality equipment to their community in a used format; and they are bringing people out of poverty and into the workforce.”
Rep. Briggs King noted her legislation is part of a broad movement to take back consumer rights. According to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, there were at least 27 states in 2021 which had Right to Repair bills in their legislative pipelines.
In November 2020, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot initiative requiring car manufacturers selling vehicles with telematics systems to equip them so that owners and independent repair facilities could retrieve mechanical data and run diagnostics using a mobile app. The measure passed by a 3-to-1 margin.
The European Union recently promulgated regulations limiting the use of adhesives in the construction of products since bonded components often cannot be accessed or removed for repair. France is requiring manufacturers to rate products on a repairability scale, giving consumers the ability to factor that information into their purchase decisions.
The Delaware Digital Right to Repair Act would require manufacturers selling electronic equipment to make documentation, parts, and tools — including updates to embedded software – available to the equipment owner or an independent repair shop on “fair and reasonable terms.”
The act would not apply to automotive equipment or leased equipment.
Under the bill, the state attorney general could take action against any company found in violation of the act. Those actions could include injunctions, lawsuits, or fine of up to $10,000 per violation.
Rep. Briggs King said her bill was released from committee nearly a year ago and is currently eligible for consideration in the House Chamber. Thus far, the measure has modest, but bipartisan support. She said she plans to press for action on the bill soon after the General Assembly returns to work next week.