The Champions of Right to Repair: Interview with Gay Gordon-Byrne
Interview with Gay Gordon-Byrne, Executive Director of The Repair Association
All About Circuits spoke with Gay Gordon-Byrne to discuss the role of businesses and individual consumers in the fight for the Right to Repair.
In a previous article, we wrote about the Right to Repair bill being presented to state legislators around the US and the implications of what Right to Repair means for users. While we covered the lawmakers and lawyers presenting the bill, we left out a larger portion of the Right to Repair movement: the people who have organized to lobby and fight for their right to repair the electronics they purchase and to decide who they want to repair their products for them.
Manufacturers argue that Right to Repair, currently an active piece of legislation in eight states, would violate their proprietary rights and infringe on Copyright laws.
All About Circuits recently spoke with Gay Gordon-Byrne, Executive Director of The Repair Association, to discuss the importance of Right to Repair for people who would like to repair their own electronics, make a living fixing broken equipment, trade in used equipment, or handle end-of-life processing.
Gay Gordon-Byrne, Executive Director of The Repair Association
All About Circuits: Tell us a bit about the people behind Right to Repair. Who are they, and what kind of professional background do they come from?
Gay Gordon-Byrne: We were founded in 2013 as an “Umbrella” coalition of several different trade associations and individual businesses specifically to drive repair-friendly legislation in state legislatures. Our plan was/is to emulate the success of the automotive industry in unlocking the monopoly held by dealerships for automotive repair and extend it generally to anything with a computerized part.
Founders were the Service Industry Association (200+ companies in the B2B computer repair industry), iFixit (open source manuals for consumer electronics repair), ASCDI/NATD (400+ companies engaged in the resale of business computing equipment), IAMERS (140+ companies trading in used medical imaging equipment), and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (leading legal fighters for digital rights).
Since our founding, we have grown substantially to over 200 trade associations, businesses, and charities. While most of our members are actively engaged in the business of repair, many are also buyers, sellers, refurbishers and recyclers of used electronic equipment ranging from the smallest gadget to the largest mainframe.
AAC: What is one of the biggest misconceptions of Right to Repair?
GGB: Most people assume that repair is very complicated and cannot be performed by anyone other than the manufacturer as the only expert. This is not true for ordinary business reasons.
Manufacturers that offer warranties or repair services as businesses have to make sure that their technicians can make repairs at low labor costs. Therefore, they design tools, diagnostics, manuals, service parts, and firmware downloads to be as easy as possible. Most repairs are done by removing the failed part and replacing it with a spare. The skill level for such push-pull repairs is quite low.
Behind the scenes, the parts themselves may be repaired and returned to stock as spares—but that’s done by specialists.
Our legislation asks only for access to these same materials on the same terms as for the authorized provider. We’re seeking the opportunity to compete in the business of repair on a level playing field.
Image courtesy of Repair.org.
AAC: One argument against Right to Repair is that it could potentially damage the livelihood of developers. Is this a possibility?
GGB: No. Repair fixes broken things (such as loose wires or fried chips) that have already been developed and for which the developer has already been compensated.
AAC: Technology is becoming more compact. Do you think we will run into difficulties repairing electronics ourselves?
GGB: Size of parts is not the key problem blocking repair. Even very small parts can be repaired (or tiny connections re-attached) with the aid of microscopes and tiny tools. Lack of information—in particular, lack of schematic diagrams—is the real hindrance to repairing any product.
Not everything will be economical to repair. Without information, repair ceases to be an option for everything. That is not going to be practical in a world reliant upon high-availability technology.
AAC: What do you see as the future of this movement?
GGB: Once passed, manufacturers are going to do their darnedest to get around the laws. We’ll need to stay involved to make sure that amendments are made to avoid compliance.
There are also tightly related issues demanding federal attention, particularly in copyright law. Current copyright law still allows for DRM (Digital Rights Management) chips to prevent repair—despite their intellectual agreement that repair does not infringe on copyright law.
While not yet our battle, the increasing use of data harvested from Internet of Things (IoT) devices without the consent of the equipment owner has our attention as an emerging digital rights issue.
AAC: What do you say to the opponents and skeptics of Right to Repair?
GGB: Legislation is going to pass that is going to restore competition that will impact your repair business profit center. Maybe this year—maybe next—but soon.
Blocking repair is a scam with only one beneficiary—the manufacturer. Buyers of technology products already have a right to repair under copyright law and patent law. There shouldn’t be any issue and we shouldn’t be having this battle. When consumers find out about their real rights—they behave predictably when scammed—they get mad. We project that brands will hurt themselves very badly by fighting against the best interests of their customers.
Passing Right to Repair would give people the freedom to tinker and fix their purchased electronics. Image courtesy of Michal Jarmoluk.
AAC: Aside from avoiding the monopolies that can occur when companies deny users to repair their own products, what other areas would passing Right to Repair into a law positively affect?
GGB: We expect used equipment values will improve, or not drop to zero within a few months after the warranty expires. Most buyers of used equipment won’t pay a dime for a broken machine, and if the manufacturer remains the only source of repair they can also control the trade-in value of working products. Repair policies are a pivot point for all secondary markets.
Recyclers will also be able to harvest service parts and sell them for reuse at far higher margins than as shredded scrap. Charities that are trying to take advantage of donated electronics will be able to generate more value and deliver more useful donations to those in need.
Anyone concerned about the explosive growth of electronic scrap will appreciate that keeping equipment out of the trash (by keeping it in use) is one of the few areas of hope in reducing waste. We won’t end electronic waste—but broader access to repair will help.
We are also worried that too much remote control via web-enabled devices is being centralized in very few hands. If the OEM has an open line to enable or disable or remotely update equipment, they also have the means to disable thousands of devices at the same time. We need to improve the ability of all consumers to secure their privacy of data outside of the OEM.
AAC: How can people become involved?
GGB: We have put up a page titled “How to Help” on our website which provides links to state representatives for writing emails and making phone calls. We always need more businesses to join our committees to develop content and services for our expanding membership, such as building new tools for best practices and independent certifications for technicians.
AAC: Anything else you’d like to add?
GGB: Yes. Lots of confusion and FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) is being passed around by opponents regarding warranty (not altered) and safety (also not altered). The manufacturer does not have responsibility for the safety of use post-purchase. In commercial contracts, there is always a disclaimer or indemnification clause to that effect. I strongly suggest anyone hearing that argument, ask them to show the contract that retains that responsibility.
As much as the OEM might have anxiety about safe use, it's simply “none of their business”. Even if someone might get hurt and sue the OEM, that risk has nothing to do with repair. Product defect litigation is based on the product being proven unsafe. Think Takata airbags. Independent mechanics have undoubtedly worked on thousands of cars with defective airbags and had no role.