About five years ago, frustration at John Deere’s draconian tractor DRM culminated in a grassroots “right to repair” movement. The company’s crackdown on “unauthorized repairs” turned countless ordinary citizens into technology policy activists, after DRM and the company’s EULA prohibited the lion’s share of repair or modification of tractors customers thought they owned. These restrictions only worked to drive up costs for owners, who faced either paying significantly more money for “authorized” repair, or toying around with pirated firmware just to ensure the products they owned actually worked.
Since then, the right to repair movement has expanded dramatically, with a heavy focus on companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sony and their attempts to monopolize repair, driving up consumer costs, and resulting in greater waste.
It has also extended into the medical arena, where device manufacturers enjoy a monopoly on tools, documentation, and replacement parts, making it a nightmare to get many pieces of medical equipment repaired. That has, unsurprisingly, become even more of a problem during the COVID-19 pandemic due to mass hospitalizations and resource constraints, with medical professionals being forced to use grey market parts or DIY parts just to get ventilators to work.
Hoping to give the movement a shot of adrenaline, Senator Ron Wyden and Representative Yvette D. Clark have introduced the Critical Medical Infrastructure Right-to-Repair Act of 2020 (pdf), which would exempt medical equipment owners and “servicers” from liability for copying service materials or breaking DRM if it was done so to improve COVID-19 aid. The legislation also pre-empts any agreements between hospitals and equipment manufacturers preventing hospital employees from working on their own equipment, something that’s also become more of a problem during the pandemic.
From a Wyden statement:
“There is no excuse for leaving hospitals and patients stranded without necessary equipment during the most widespread pandemic to hit the U.S. in 100 years,” Wyden said. “It is just common sense to say that qualified technicians should be allowed to make emergency repairs or do preventative maintenance, and not have their hands tied by overly restrictive contracts and copyright laws, until this crisis is over.”
While numerous states have attempted to pass right to repair legislation, none have succeeded so far. In large part because companies like Apple have lobbied extensively to thwart them, (falsely) claiming that letting customers and independent repair merchants fix devices (usually for far less money) would be a privacy and security nightmare. In Nebraska, Apple even tried to claim that such legislation would turn the state into a mecca for hackers (sounds pretty cool to me, but what do I know). Apple has also spent years bullying a small repair shop in Norway because he used refurbished Apple parts to fix devices.
This is the first time such legislation will be proposed on the federal level. As such, likely seeing it as a gateway to broader legislation, companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sony, and John Deere will now likely do their best to (quietly) kill it, despite the positive impact it could have during a pandemic.
Congress To Consider National Right To Repair Law For First Time
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