Surprise! Congress is doing something about the right to repair

Two newly proposed laws will help consumers of electronics and cars.
Brad Bergan
Capitol Hill (left), and a person repairing equipment (right).1, 2

It's been a long time coming.

Two long-awaited laws introduced into the House of Representatives could finally let ordinary citizens fix their pricey tech items, instead of having to pay the manufacturer (or buy a new one), according to a post on the official website of Congress.

One of the bills emphasizes cars, but the other one focuses on copyright restrictions for electronics, like iPhones.

Combined with other legislation put forward in U.S. Senate that could enable farmers to repair expensive, often intergenerational equipment, we might be on the edge of a cultural paradigm shift about the right to repair.

A cultural paradigm shift in favor of right-to-repair

Years passed without meaningful action in Congress, but legislation on electronics showed up in a bipartisan bill on Wednesday, from Representatives Victoria Spartz, an Indiana Republican, and Mondaire Jones, a Democrat of New York.

Fittingly dubbed the Freedom to Repair Act, if passed it'll create a new norm that exempts the need to get around copyrights on electronics from the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Until now, the DMCA made that illegal.

Digital rights activists have been forced to petition the Library of Congress several times per decade so people could repair their own equipment under exempted pretexts to the current law. That takes a lot of legwork, and adds a long and arbitrary phase of bureaucratic approval to a problem that a DIY engineer could otherwise solve in his or her garage. And with the Freedom to Repair, they can do it without the petition.

"For too long, federal copyright law has allowed the most powerful corporations in the world to control who repairs what we own," said Jones, in a Wednesday statement. "By entrenching the power of these major corporations, repair restrictions threaten our economy, including the economic well-being of American consumers and small businesses."

Later that day, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat, introduced a different bill: the Right to Equitable and Professional Auto Industry Repair (REPAIR) Act. And this one would ensure that independent repair shops and customers would be allowed to use the same data and tools that dealerships enjoy.

"Americans should not be forced to bring their cars to more costly and inconvenient dealerships for repairs when independent auto repair shops are often cheaper and far more accessible," said Rush, in a Thursday statement. "But as cars become more advanced, manufacturers are getting sole access to important vehicle data while independent repair shops are increasingly locked out. The status quo for auto repair is not tenable, and it is getting worse."

The news comess nearly four months after Microsoft finally agreed to comply with the right to repair the products it sells — a major concession from Big Tech many thought would never come.

You can (finally) do it yourself

In June of 2021, the New York state senate voted to pass the Digital Fair Repair Act, an item of legislation focused on electronics. And these two developments were followed-up in January, when, whether yielding under unstoppable grass-roots momentum or pursuing a verifiably good cause, the Joe Biden administration officially backed the right-to-repair by clarifying the language on an executive order signed last year, which ordered the Federal Trade Commission to draft right to repair laws capable of resisting anticompetitive practices.

Where we go from here - "It sounds kind of silly saying it that way, but we call it the right to repair and it's literal," Biden has said. At the time, Biden describes the difficulties of consumers who are left without any option but to appeal to the dealer of products.

The other option, for decades, had been to try a DIY repair, and risk voiding the warranty, or committing criminal acts. But it looks like that era of hopeless engineering bureaucracy for electronics, cars, and other equipment may be coming to an end. And it's about time.

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