Doesnt have to be this way.
Doesn't have to be this way. Westend61/Getty Images

Well, the headlight on your car’s burned out. Guess that means you have to junk the whole vehicle and buy a new one.

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Absurd as that sounds, it’s basically how we treat a lot of consumer electronics, many of which have been made as difficult to repair as possible — not necessarily for any good reason, but to force consumers to keep buying new stuff. If you’ve ever tried to fix an electronic device, you’ve probably run into one of those funky-shaped screws, or tenacious glue-blobs holding broken pieces in place. Or maybe, if you’re lucky enough to have a repair place close by, you’ve taken it to a shop only to learn that it’ll cost more to fix than to replace. The result is that a lot of e-waste that could be salvaged winds up getting junked.

House Bill 1212 (Update: Nope, that's last year's version — for 2022 it's HB 1810), sponsored by state Rep. Mia Gregerson, would fix that situation by requiring big tech companies like Samsung, Apple, and Microsoft to make tools and tech specs available to anyone who wants to repair their own devices. The bill has carved out exemptions for trade secrets and safety concerns, among other considerations.

So, ready to open up that old phone with the cracked screen, the toaster with the buttons that only work if you hold it sideways, or your collection of controllers with the drifty sticks? Not so fast — tech companies are clutching their pearls at the very idea of you filthy commoners peeking inside their components.

The pandemic has made the need for this bill all the more clear, Gregerson said at a hearing last week, because we've become so reliant on digital tools to stay connected. That's especially true for students in remote school districts that don't have the money or nearby expertise to conduct needlessly complex repairs. When a student's laptop breaks down, Gregerson said, "they're missing a day of learning."

Schools are expected to be a significant beneficiary of right-to-repair legislation, testified North Shore educator Sandy Hayes, President of the School Directors’ Association. “It will take us close to ten years before we have the funds to replace a current device,” she told lawmakers. If manufacturers stop hiding basic tech documents, it would help schools “keep our costs down by allowing districts and students to do minor repairs.”

Those benefits would extend beyond just schools, of course. You bought the device, you own it, why shouldn’t you be allowed to fix it when it breaks?

Right-to-repair has become something of an obsession for Kyle Wiens, founder and CEO of iFixit. His company provides detailed instructions for repairing devices of all shapes and sizes, and it all started with an old PowerBook G3, last manufactured about 20 years ago.

"I didn’t need a part, I just needed to get it open and the dang thing was just really hard to open up," Wiens told The Stranger. He looked online for repair instructions, and "I learned Apple’s lawyers had sent DMCA takedown threats to anyone who had posted the manual."

That was the genesis of a company that provides repair instructions for a wide array of electronics, and writes their own manuals when companies refuse to provide them. It's a resource that's been increasingly vital since the start of the pandemic.

"In this supply chain situation, good luck buying a game console," Wiens said. "You’re better off hanging onto the things you’ve got."

But manufacturers would prefer that you not think in those terms. Last week’s hearing was attended by various tech industry trade groups, all frowning on the prospect of citizen-led repairs.

David Edmonson is the VP of State Policy and Government Relations at TechNet, an organization representing dozens of major firms: Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Google, Grubhub, General Motors, Lyft, Meta (aka Facebook), PayPal, Uber, Zoom, and many many others. He urged Washington legislators to reject the bill as written, claiming that the current situation is fine: “Consumers currently have a variety of professional repair options,” he said, suggesting that people can continue to use repair options authorized by manufacturers.

That might sound reasonable, but let me give you a little inside peek into those “authorized repair networks,” because I used to be a part of one.

Back in college, I worked at a camera chain that offered “authorized” repairs as part of the warranty when you bought a device. We all knew it was a scam: When some poor sucker brought in their broken camera, we’d send it out to be fixed, knowing the repair would take weeks if not months — at best! Sometimes it would simply get lost, and the customer (if they remembered that they’d brought their camera in) would have to fight tooth and nail for a replacement. Other times, the damage would conveniently turn out to be something that wasn’t covered by the warranty, at which point the customer would have to choose whether to pay out-of-pocket to have it shipped back, broken; or pay through the nose for a repair that sometimes cost as much as a new camera. Sometimes they'd come back with new damage, and customers would be too fed up to continue the process.

There were a handful of times when I was able to save the customer. They might’ve just needed one of those tiny eyeglass-sized screws tightened; or their battery contact just needed to be bent back into place with needle nose pliers; or their dented lens just needed to be delicately unscrewed with the help of a strap wrench. Just like that, a multi-month repair ordeal was solved in under five minutes because I, some dumb college kid, just happened to have some basic tools and knowledge. I wish I could have done that for more people — or better yet, that they could have found the instructions to do it themselves at home.

But industry groups would like very much for things to stay the way they are. “Already consumers have a wide range of secure repair options through their authorized repair network,” said Dustin Brighton, representing the Repair Done Right Coalition. Hey, who exactly is in that coalition? Hard to say! Brighton, who has worked with Microsoft and Ebay in the past, seems to be the only person who has ever spoken on the group’s behalf. Could be a coalition of one for all we know. I reached out to his consulting company, Brightstone Bridge, but haven’t heard back.

Also opposed to the bill were Lisa McCabe, director of state legislative affairs for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, and George Kerchner, executive director of the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association. Kerchner warned that batteries are too hazardous for the average person to replace — but the Federal Trade Commission disagreed in a 2019 report that found “scant evidence to support … manufacturers’ explanation for repair restrictions.”

Batteries can indeed be hazardous — I’ve been zapped many a time by a capacitor while tinkering with disposable cameras, to say nothing of the potential for batteries to explode — but the FTC report noted that “manufacturers can choose to make products safer to repair when considering a product’s design,” and called out “manufacturer practice that increases the safety risks of independent repair,” such as failing to label batteries.

This is a problem that’s been solved in other industries. For example, I was able to safely replace the battery in my Prius a few years ago, saving myself a couple hundred bucks in repair costs. I am not by any stretch of the imagination a car person! But this repair was about as easy to do as building an Ikea desk, and I could drop off the old spent battery at an auto shop. If it’s possible to make giant car batteries safe to swap, it’s possible to do it with cell phones.

When you boil the bill down, testified Nicole Walter of the Washington Public Interest Research Group, “Right-to-Repair is about choice."

And Patrick Connor of the Washington State Small Business Owners Association — whose membership includes local repair shops — testified that their membership favored the legislation by a margin of more than three to one.

"I would say I’m pretty optimistic," Wiens says when asked about HB 1810's chances of passage this year. Though similar bills have been proposed in other states, he says, "Washington’s in the lead right now. ... People should call their representatives and tell them to support it."