CARSON CITY, Nev. — Trade groups representing big tech companies faced off with independent repair shop owners Monday during a committee hearing in the Nevada Legislature over a proposal that would require manufacturers to give repair shops the ability to fix devices like computers, phones, tablets and printers.
Whether government should require companies to provide independent shops — rather than just authorized dealers — access to the parts and schematics needed to fix devices is one front in a larger societal battle over how to regulate the technology industry as their products become more necessary in everyday life.
So-called “Right to Repair” bills like the one in Nevada, which are under consideration in 25 statehouses, are loosely based on a Massachusetts ballot initiative that voters approved last year to make car parts and plans available to vehicle repair businesses.
Nevada’s bill would apply to consumer electronic devices worth less than $5,000 wholesale and exempt gambling equipment in a state where the casino lobby has huge influence.
The debate centers on how and where consumers can fix broken smart phones and the extent to which the companies that produce them have the right to safeguard their intellectual property.
Elsewhere in the U.S., lawmakers in Nebraska have tailored repair legislation to agricultural equipment while California is considering requiring medical equipment manufacturers to make available information on how to repair devices like ventilators.
Las Vegas Assemblywoman Selena Torres, an English teacher who once worked at a battery store that did repairs, said adding the requirement for independent shops to get what they need from bigger companies to make repairs into state law would protect jobs in the electronics repair industry.
She said that would allow residents to get their devices fixed locally instead of having to ship them to out-of-state manufacturers.
She sponsored the bill to provide consumers with more affordable repair options — something that’s more urgent now because the pandemic has forced students and remote workers to rely more heavily on technology, she said.
The Clark County School District, which is Nevada’s largest and covers the Las Vegas area, distributed tens of thousands of Google Chromebooks during the pandemic to facilitate distance learning, but it took months to ensure all students in the Las Vegas area had internet and device access, according to Nevada’s “ Connecting Kids ” task force.
“Early in the pandemic, a nationwide laptop shortage left millions of students unprepared for virtual learning. As an educator I saw firsthand how families struggled to share one device with several school-aged children,” Torres said. “The right to repair will give schools and other institutions the information they need to maintain equipment and empower the refurbished computer market, saving taxpayer dollars and improving digital access.”
TechNet, a trade group that lobbies for Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell and other device manufacturers, has mounted vigorous opposition to the repair bills in state legislatures.
Cameron Demetre, the organization’s regional executive director, said manufacturers worry about “unvetted third parties” having access to the personal information stored in consumer electronic devices. He said the bill had “the potential for troubling unintended consequences, including serious adverse security, privacy and safety risks.”
Repair businesses wonder why fixing batteries or smart phone home buttons compromises cybersecurity and say that over the past decades, manufacturers have made it increasingly difficult to purchase the parts they need to fix devices. They have also said that the companies tell customers to replace their printers or computers even if only relatively minor parts of the devices need repairs.
“It’s changed from being able to do anything you want to repair your computer or printer to ‘You can’t do anything now.’ Everything’s changed to being disposable or impossible to repair,” said Curtis Jones, who runs the Technology Center repair shop in the northern Nevada city of Sparks.
Without access to parts and schematics of many devices that people use, Jones worries that his business will soon have to close down. He said his employees often joke about how they will soon be packaging new devices for shipment from an Amazon warehouse instead of fixing devices that come into the store.
Jones believes tech companies want to control the repair business and would prefer that customers purchase new devices rather than repair aging ones.
He also worries about environmental impact from the production and disposal of new devices — many with rechargeable batteries powered by resources mined in Nevada — instead of repairing equipment with minor problems.
“We’re going to have landfills so overloaded, we’re going to have to start living on top of old printers or computers,” he said.
Walter Acorn, a lobbyist with the Consumer Technology Association representing device manufacturers and retailers, told lawmakers that unauthorized repair shops tinkering with the companies’ technology could compromise public perception of their products.
“One of the reasons that consumer electronics manufacturers are so sensitive is that their business model is based on their brand reputation,” he said.
Acorn added: “The concern that these companies have in protecting their brands — and these products still carry their names on them — is in particular that the repairs will be done wrong or that substandard parts will be included and the customer experience will be different.”
Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.