The right to repair is not the ability to repair

Will current attempts to wrest control back to the user be successful?

Living out in the country, the repair ethos flourishes. I suspect it is partly a consequence of extra space. Seemingly everyone has a project vehicle or two, in addition to some broken heavy equipment, and extra machines kept on hand for spare parts.

Similarly the rise of social media and user generated video has enabled a renaissance of repair and do it yourself. I like to joke that this is what made it possible for a city kid like myself to move into the country, but it’s no joke. Anytime anything goes wrong if you don’t have the knowledge to deal with it, the answer can be found in a video or forum post.

Although that is where the slippery slope begins. The problem with social media content, is that on the one hand, it makes everything seem surprisingly easy, but on the other hand, the best content is almost always sponsored or commercial. Which means the solution is easy, if you have the tool being promoted. Or the repair is no problem, if you have a fully equipped shop with necessary supports.

DIY and right to repair sound great in the abstract, but the reality is a bit more complicated. These are essential values and principles we should be advocating for, but there is much nuance and theory that goes into it.

Rights for example only tend to matter if you use, or more appropriately, defend them. Given the costs of legal actions, individuals are generally not in a position to do much, unless they’re wealthy.

Which is maybe way the right to repair movement may have found it’s greatest champions in farmers. Farmers who spend considerable sums on heavy equipment that in the last decade they haven’t had the right or ability to repair.

Until now?

President Biden is preparing to issue an executive order on the right to repair, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. This would be the first time a president has weighed in on the ability for consumers to fix their own things; it would also be the first time that a president has taken concrete steps on the issue. 

At the White House press briefing today, Psaki said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Trade Commission, at the direction of Biden, is working on new rules to increase competition in the farming industry, allow for greater competition between small farmers and big businesses, and “give farmers the right to repair their own equipment how they like.” Psaki said this would be part of an executive order that the Biden administration will sign that is focused more broadly on helping farmers.

While this is a major victory for the right to repair movement, this is an executive order that only targets the agricultural sector. Which makes this a symbolic action, that while powerful, is but a gesture.

Some tractor manufacturers like Deere & Co (DE.N), AGCO Corp (AGCO.N) and CNHI (CNHI.MI) use proprietary repair tools and software to prevent third parties from performing some repairs. Shares of the companies fell on news of Biden's plans, first reported by Reuters on Tuesday.

John Deere said in a statement it "does not support the right to modify embedded software due to risks associated with the safe operation of the equipment, emissions compliance and engine performance."

It added that "less than 2 percent of all repairs require a software update, so the majority of repairs farmers need to make, can be made easily."

In this instance the government can’t just wave a magic policy wand and change the technology behind contemporary tractors.

Rather the details of this policy intervention will be crucial. Will they use fines? Will there be a grace period? Grandfather clause? New models only? Force proprietary technology to be open sourced?

There’s a wide range of possibilities and not a lot of detail. Let alone proof that said details will actually result in the desired outcome?

Also, by focusing this exclusively on the agricultural sector, the Biden administration may be trying to avoid a coalition of opponents that have successfully curtailed previous attempts to legislate the right to repair.

Indeed this fight is ongoing, with recent battles in Massachusetts.

And New York State:

However these state based initiatives are not enough, and if anything are meant to put pressure on the federal government to wade into the debate.

Which is happening, independent of the Biden administration executive order on agriculture.

On Thursday, Congressman Joseph Morelle (D-NY) filed national right-to-repair legislation with Congress. The Fair Repair Act would require manufacturers to provide device owners and independent repair stores access to the tools, parts, and information they need to fix electronics. If it passed, people could fix their own stuff without having to return their stuff to the people who made it. Farmers could fix their own tractors and we could all more easily fix our own phones.

Thus far, the overwhelming majority of right-to-repair legislation has been introduced at the state level; national legislation would obviously make implementation easier, because it would prevent different states from having different laws about electronics that all Americans own.

“For too long, large corporations have hindered the progress of small business owners and everyday Americans by preventing them from the right to repair their own equipment,” Rep. Morelle said in a statement. “It’s long past time to level the playing field, which is why I’m so proud to introduce the Fair Repair Act and put the power back in the hands of consumers. This common-sense legislation will help make technology repairs more accessible and affordable for items from cell phones to laptops to farm equipment, finally giving individuals the autonomy they deserve.”

Which also brings greater pressure and potential to right to repair movements around the world.

There is growing pressure on manufacturers around the world to allow consumers the right to repair their own devices.

The UK has introduced right-to-repair rules that legally require manufacturers to make spare parts available to people buying electrical appliances.

The European Commission has announced plans for right-to-repair rules for smartphones, tablets and laptops.

All told, it does depict a momentum for the right to repair movement that is encouraging. However it is at this moment of impending success, that it might be worth rethinking the frame all together.

In aiming for the right to repair, was the target, or ask, to low? A liberal world focuses on rights, yet even in societies where those rights are protected by law, many people have their rights ignored or removed.

Rights remain a privilege of the powerful, and a myth to the marginalized and poor.

What if in this instance, the focus was not on the right to repair, but the ability to repair.

What if instead of designing products that are difficult to repair, we mandated products that were (relatively) easy and accessible to repair? What if repair was not a right, but an inherent design principle? Embedded into the equipment and technology we depend upon?

Granted that’s a radical idea, that may require a significant shift to achieve, but consider the environmental impact of ensuring our vehicles, appliances, and machines could be repaired rather than disposed of? What if we took pride in passing down our tech to the next generation rather than assuming it won’t last?

Rather than planned obsolescence we could have planned repair and upgrades.

Rather than just making repair possible, manufacturers (and their marketers) could be required to also provide appropriate user education and support materials/media.

Although perhaps that’s the difference between reform and revolution.

In aiming low, it’s possible that the right to repair won’t even achieve that, given the industry’s ability to obfuscate and complicate even the most basic concepts.

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