The Oregon State Legislature is considering HB 3631, a bill that would ensure that consumers have a “right to repair” their electronics devices. The legislation would require that manufacturers provide consumers and independent repair shops access to relevant repair information, as well to make available any parts or tools necessary to carry out the repair.
This may seem like common sense. Many consumers believe they should have the right to have their devices repaired by themselves or by whomever they want. If you buy a mobile phone, you should be able to do anything you want with it. You can use it as intended, give it to a friend or even smash it with a hammer. So why can’t you have someone else repair it?
The short answer is that manufacturers have invested enormous sums to research and develop those devices, and even more time and money to build their brand’s reputation. When devices break or get damaged, they and their authorized repair shops are usually in the best position to repair them. Because their reputation depends on devices working as expected, they have incentives to ensure that the repairs are done properly. An independent iPhone repair shop cares much less about Apple’s reputation than Apple cares about its own. Too many shoddy iPhone repairs may confuse consumers into believing there is something wrong with phones themselves, rather than with the shop’s repair skills.
Perhaps even more importantly, independent repair shops may not have the same interest or ability to secure their customers’ privacy and data. Hunter Biden’s water-damaged Apple laptop would not be in the headlines if he had taken it to the Apple store for service, instead of an independent repair shop. Many manufacturers and their authorized service providers have built their brands on a reputation for maintaining consumer privacy and protecting consumers’ data.
More broadly, right-to-repair laws can negatively affect manufacturers’ ability to protect sensitive proprietary information about how their devices work. If a bill goes too far in forcing this information “out into the wild,” it can have a widespread chilling effect on future innovation and investments in such products. In the long run, this could harm consumers by restricting the market for electronic devices.
Stepping back, it’s also important to examine the context in which these bills operate. Obviously, consumers care about lower prices, but price is only one factor in consumer preferences. Consumers also value convenience and ease of use. A right-to-repair bill might lower repair bills in the short run, but could just as easily drive up prices in the long run. This happens by forcing manufacturers to complicate their production output to incorporate these mandates. Moreover, to the extent that the devices’ appeal to consumers relies on tight integration and slick design, the new mandates can render them less easy to use.
While self-appointed “consumer advocate” groups almost certainly believe what they are saying, they represent only one set of values. The typical consumer may not care much at all about the repair industry, and also may not greet the outcome of this legislation with nearly as much enthusiasm.
Given this context, Oregon lawmakers need to proceed judiciously when contemplating right-to-repair. There are some gains to be had, but these can easily be swamped by unintended consequences.