iPhone users who crack their screens or run into software problems generally respond in the same way; they head to the Genius Bar at their nearest Apple store and hope the device can be fixed. Now bills introduced in several state legislatures could offer them other, potentially cheaper, options.
Eight states have introduced right-to-repair bills, which would require the makers of electronic devices—and in some cases farm equipment manufacturers such as that manufactured by John Deere—to provide parts and software access that would allow anyone to repair their equipment.
Electronics manufacturers oppose such legislation.
The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) and the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which represent companies including Disney Interactive Studios, Microsoft, and Nintendo, released a statement in March saying that such laws could threaten intellectual property rights, as well as compromise the security and privacy of consumers. "Hackers are constantly trying to break into a wide range of devices," the organizations wrote. "Any weakening of the current standards, including sharing sensitive diagnostic tools and proprietary hardware data, could expose customers to risk."
The groups also warned that independent repairers might not have proper training or follow safety standards, and might cut corners in ways that posed risks.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) supports such legislation, and Kit Walsh, staff attorney at EFF, dismisses safety concerns as "cover for trying to monopolize the marketplace." Says Walsh, "I've replaced the screen on my smartphone several times, and nothing has ever caught fire." People have been doing their own home and auto repairs for as long as there have been houses and cars, she argues. While it certainly is possible for an amateur, for example, to install a brake line incorrectly, that is not an argument for preventing independent professionals from offering repair services, she says.
Nebraska State Senator Lydia Brasch (R), who introduced the bill in her state, said in a statement during an early March hearing that concerns about hacking were misplaced. "Any hacker who is worth their salt neither wants nor needs the diagnostic and repair information to steal data," she said. She added that she was not seeking to release the source code for any operating system, only the diagnostic and repair software that works on top of the operating system.
The movement was spurred by the passage of a law that allowed access to information required to repair cars. A law that went into effect in 2014 in Massachusetts required automotive manufacturers to provide access to diagnostic codes and other information that would allow privately owned garages to repair cars, something that had become much more difficult as vehicles adopted more computing technology studded with proprietary software.
Massachusetts is among the states where right-to-repair laws aimed at electronics containing integrated circuits and software—not just smartphones and laptops, but other "Internet of Things" devices—have been introduced this year. The others are Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, and Tennessee. Bills in Kansas and Wyoming are limited to computerized devices that are part of farming equipment.
Apple is among the manufacturers who have reportedly lobbied against these bills. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Walsh says owners of devices are currently stymied by the federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA); if a manufacturer puts encryption technology on software, gaining access to that software could break the law. The EFF has convinced the Librarian of Congress to allow exemptions to the law for vehicles and security researchers, but those rules are reviewed every three years, so advocates must re-argue their case on a regular basis. The DMCA was originally written to prevent problems such as piracy of movies on DVD, but is now applied to the software in devices that Congress never envisioned when it wrote the law, Walsh says, and the EFF would like to see it changed. That could actually make devices safer from hacking, Walsh says, because security researchers could find flaws that companies either miss or do not want to repair.
While the states can't do anything about federal law, the right-to-repair bills could tackle the end user license agreements that prohibit users from accessing or altering software. That is contract law, and the states have the ability to declare such contracts as being against their public policy.
Previous attempts to pass these laws failed, such as in New York last year, and some of this year's efforts have already stalled. The Nebraska legislature shelved its bill due to lack of support from lawmakers. A similar bill in Minnesota was not scheduled for a hearing by a legislative deadline.
Walsh, however, holds out hope for the proposals in New York and Massachusetts. "They seem to have momentum," she says.
Neil Savage is a science and technology writer based in Lowell, MA.
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