Consumer Power: The Rising Demand for Repairable Electronics

Consumer Power: The Rising Demand for Repairable Electronics

As the 2024 session passes the one-third complete mark, it’s worth reflecting on one issue that isn’t on the table this year: the right to repair consumer technology. Although Nebraska was in the national spotlight when it debated the credibility of such a policy a few years ago, it will not be on the table this year—the story of why highlights the benefits of market-based solutions.

This topic deserves attention, as it affects all consumers who rely on everything from smartphones and watches to laptops, medical devices, e-readers, and other devices. The number of “dumb” items connected to online systems increases yearly, including everything from light bulbs to microwaves.

The right-to-repair movement is gaining momentum as people demand the ability to fix their devices and appliances instead of buying new ones, often due to planned obsolescence. As one commenter mentioned, “You bought it; you should be able to fix it.” It is a well-known secret that technology firms prefer consumers to buy new devices rather than spend money at a repair shop. Planned obsolescence has become suspect thanks to that momentum.

Planned obsolescence leads to the problem of e-waste, a market externality. Giving consumers a way to extend the life of their devices seems like a small step towards a more sustainable future with the benefit of consumer goodwill. For this reason, the European Union has set about getting Europeans the right to repair.

Despite any federal legislative moves to empower consumers to repair their electronic property, there’s growing advocacy for the right-to-repair on the state level, with new bills being passed annually such as Colorado and Minnesota.

One of the earliest state bills was Nebraska’s 2017 LB67, conceived as a comprehensive right-to-repair bill that included a right to “fair and reasonable” access to information and tools. Manufacturers who refused to provide access to their tools and information could face civil penalties of $500 per violation.

The right-to-repair movement revolves around property rights, a fundamental freedom that both proponents and opponents agree on – and fiercely debate. Apart from the consumer’s desire for a product to function correctly, companies have a legal right to protect their trade secrets after investing significant amounts of money in research and development. Both intellectual and personal property rights are essential for a thriving state economy and, without being hyperbolic, a free-market democracy.

Apple, the iPhone and iPad maker, was one of the companies most vocal about protecting their intellectual property from LB67, with some media outlets pointing out that Nebraska might become a premiere destination for hackers.

Apple was known for restricting devices from unauthorized repairs and making parts non-interchangeable. For instance, the camera on the iPhone 12 couldn’t be interchanged with a camera from another iPhone 12. In the past, Apple has also utilized custom laws to sanction independent providers buying Apple parts overseas.

That zeal for IP protection extended to state policy. LB 67 expired without maturing into law, at least from that lobbying effort. But there was a change in which LB 67 was the inflection point.

Market dynamics can foster trust and brand loyalty, as customers favor easily repairable products. This is also advantageous for businesses, as repairable investments can save money on their bottom line. Until recently, companies withheld repair information due to a lack of consumer demand for repairability. They were reluctant to provide access to information because repairability wasn’t a consumer priority. Our dependence on technology was not as significant a decade ago as it is now and is now.

Our devices have become more complex as we’ve moved away from analog mechanical devices to digital ones, complete with semiconductors and microchips. This transition has not provided hobbyists and small-town repairmen an intuitive understanding of how these devices function.

Apple now offers consumers and independent technicians access to information to repair their devices, and a paywall does not guard the diagnostic information.  The company endorsed California’s version of a right-to-repair bill, passed into law, and now backs the idea of a federal right-to-repair.

Just this month, Google endorsed the Right to Repair and became disagreeable with using programming to restrict the ability to repair called “parts pairing,” exemplified in the iPhone 12 camera example and still allowable under California law. This difference in opinion illustrates how competition should work in an information economy, with one firm signaling a more favorable policy than its competitors.

That is not to say consumer advocates did not blow the whistle on unfair practices affecting small repair businesses and consumers alike. By speaking up and explaining why consumers should demand repairability, consumers were better informed. There is no doubt that this critical work will keep pressing on. Consumer Reports is one such entity. But the mechanism that caused this change was the free market, not any legislative action.

Regulatory schemes pale in comparison to market-driven solutions, which are powered by consumer demand and competition, delivering faster and more innovative solutions that are flexible and effective.

While other states might continue to flirt by enacting some right-to-repair laws, Nebraska reaps the benefits without a law. This happened when Massachusetts passed a law requiring automakers to release information that assists car owners and auto shops not associated with dealerships in making repairs. Carmakers now give repair information out nationally, not only to buyers in Massachusetts. Nebraska may benefit from other states’ laws without having the deadweight loss associated with the market-constraining effects of those laws.

One fact is clear: as consumers demand the ability to repair devices, they foster innovation and competitiveness. This will continue as advocates pressure the tech industry.

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