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The United States’ First Right to Repair Law Could Fail Despite Passing

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Andrew Heinzman

Someone holding a sign that says "Right to Repair"
AndriiKoval / Shutterstock.com

Earlier this year, the state of New York passed the “Digital Fair Repair Act.” It’s a landmark bill, and if signed into law, it will be the first Right to Repair legislation in the United States. But one obstacle could lead to this bill’s downfall—it will be automatically vetoed if it isn’t signed by December 31st of 2022.

What Is Right to Repair?

Manufacturers don’t want you to fix your own stuff. Instead, they’d prefer that you go down the costlier route—pay an “authorized” technician for repairs, or just buy a new thing. This attitude impacts nearly every product you purchase, whether it’s a smartphone, a tractor, a Bluetooth speaker, or a life-saving medical device. It’s a strain on your wallet and the environment.

To be clear, we’re not talking about “planned obsolescence.” The problem is that people can’t perform repairs at home, as they lack access to instructions or authentic replacement parts. And unfortunately, most products are engineered to discourage “unauthorized repairs.” The iPhone is an obvious example, as it may disable certain features if you replace a broken component.

The problem of non-repairability also impacts businesses. As you may know, John Deere is currently under the strain of several lawsuits. Farmers and other professionals allege that John Deere holds a monopoly on repairs, maintenance, and diagnostics for its products. The FTC is siding with farmers, and it found that 90% of John Deere error messages (which instantly disable farm equipment) can only be resolved by an authorized dealer.

We want this nonsense to stop. And Right to Repair advocates believe that legislation is the solution. Such legislation, if passed, would force manufacturers to provide consumers with schematics, repair instructions, authentic replacement parts, and critical diagnostic software. Right to Repair could also push manufacturers toward repair-friendly product design, which has fallen by the wayside over the past two decades.

Obviously, lobbyists are fighting against Right to Repair. They’re also trying to meet customers halfway with new (and often disappointing) repair programs—something that lawmakers and the general public may confuse for “progress.” (Admittedly, companies like Microsoft and Valve are doing a decent job in this area.)

But the U.S. public overwhelmingly supports Right to Repair legislation. And, earlier this year, a “Digital Fair Repair Act” breezed through New York’s State Assembly and Senate—it passed with a nearly unanimous “yes.” Unfortunately, this landmark bill will fail if it isn’t signed into law by Governor Kathy Hochul before the end of 2022.

New York Passed a Right to Repair Bill in June

an image showing the Digital Fair Repair Act's progress through New York's system.
The New York State Senate

Introduced by Right to Repair advocates, the “Digital Fair Repair Act” is a landmark bill that could have a cascade effect on the United States. It’s the country’s first Right to Repair law—at least, it will be if it’s signed by New York Governor Kathy Hochul.

The “Digital Fair Repair Act” aims to improve the New York economy by encouraging fair access to repair, diagnostic, and maintenance materials. If signed into law, it will ensure that independent repair shops can purchase reasonably-priced, authentic parts and schematics. Regular citizens would also gain access to these materials.

Now, this bill isn’t perfect. It gives corporations a bit of wiggle room, and it mainly focuses on consumer goods, such as phones, cameras, and laptops. Farm equipment, medical supplies, and motor vehicles are omitted from the “Digital Fair Repair Act.” (Lawmakers say that this omission is the result of security and safety concerns.)

But for all its quirks, the “Digital Fair Repair Act” is a good starting point. The effects of this law would be felt across the United States—companies have no choice but to comply, and other state governments (which are already pushing for Right to Repair legislation) would follow in New York’s path.

Like we said earlier, the “Digital Fair Repair Act” passed through New York’s State Assembly and Senate without much pushback. It’s an overwhelmingly popular bill. So, what’s the holdup?

But the “Digital Fair Repair Act” Could Fail

A photo of an iFixit-sponsored billboard encouraging Governor Hochul to sign the Digital Fair Repair Act
iFixit

The New York legislature passed Right to Repair almost unanimously, because it’s an obvious win for consumers and the environment. Now Governor Hochul needs to sign and seal it, so New Yorkers can get the parts, tools, and documentation they need to fix their stuff.

She’s running out of time. If she doesn’t sign by the end of the year, we’ll have to start the legislative process all over again.

— Liz Chamberlain, iFixit Director of Sustainability

Signing a bill into law is never an easy process, even with bipartisan support. This is especially true in New York, which is one of the few U.S. states to allow the “pocket veto” provision. Basically, if a bill sits around for too long, it’s trashed.

More notably, a pocket veto can’t be contested by state legislature. That’s what sets it apart from a traditional “package” veto or a “line-item” veto (which removes certain sections of a bill). If a New York governor wants to kill a bill without putting up a fight, they go the pocket veto route.

The “Digital Fair Repair Act” passed through New York’s State Assembly and Senate in June. Its only roadblock is Governor Kathy Hochul, who has not requested to see the bill. And the bill will be pocket vetoed if it doesn’t reach Hochul’s desk by December 31st.

If Hochul requests to see the “Digital Fair Repair Act,” she loses the ability to pocket veto. At this point, she is forced to either sign the bill, pursue a line-item or package veto (which would probably receive pushback from the state legislature), or simply let it sit on her desk for 10 days (at which point it automatically becomes law).

As expected, Right to Repair advocates are sounding the alarm. They want Hochul to acknowledge this landmark bill, and more importantly, they hope to inform voters of the situation. After all, a large percentage of Hochul’s constituents support Right to Repair legislation.

The loudest Right to Repair advocate is iFixit, a company that publishes free repair guides for popular electronics (and sells repair equipment). Our friends at iFixit encourage people to contact Governor Hochul, and they’ve erected billboards in New York to raise awareness of the issue.

What Will Happen Next?

A very broken camera.
umarazak / Shutterstock.com

New York should be the first jurisdiction in the world to pass a Right to Repair bill. Gov Hochul has an opportunity to take a leadership role in the fight against Climate Change.

— Kyle Wiens, iFixit CEO and Co-Founder

The “Digital Fair Repair Act” will perish if it isn’t signed by December 31st. If that happens, New Yorkers are forced to start from scratch. Someone will need to introduce a new Right to Repair bill, which must pass through checks and balances before reaching (or being ignored by) the governor.

But if New Yorkers are lucky, Governor Hochul will request the bill and give it a fair shot. Simply acknowledging this landmark bill would set a precedent for other U.S. states, even if it gets vetoed. (If Hochul does sign the bill, it won’t go into effect until 2024.)

On the bright side, the Right to Repair movement isn’t losing any steam. Many corporations see the writing on the wall, and they’re trying to address repairability before it becomes a legal challenge—Microsoft is actually one of the best examples, as it recently put together an engineering team to improve repairability across its Surface line of PCs. (Microsoft is also working with iFixit to sell authentic Surface parts and repair kits.)

We believe that several U.S. states will introduce Right to Repair legislation throughout 2023. It’s a popular bipartisan issue that’s amplified by today’s economic and environmental situation. Let’s just hope that Right to Repair actually gets signed into law!





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